Mitchell: Cultural gap behind scrutiny of black cadets

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The U.S. Military Academy has launched an inquiry into the image that has spurred questions about whether the gesture violates military restrictions on political activity. | Obtained from Twitter via AP

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What do you see when you see a “raised fist?”

I see solidarity, support, black pride and resistance.

As a child of the turbulent ’60s, the “raised fist” was almost as sacred as praying hands.

So when I ran across the photograph of 16 African-American female West Point cadets posing in ceremonial uniforms with raised fists, the first thought that came to mind was “Right on.”

I can’t imagine the challenges these young women faced trying to get through this elite military academy. But I know it wasn’t easy.

To me, and I suspect to a lot of other black people, the pose was special because it captured the “Still I Rise” spirit.

Apparently that’s a black thing.

The celebratory photograph became the subject of an official inquiry by the U.S. Military Academy after John Burk, a white blogger and former soldier, cast the “raised fist” photo as a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement.


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“The students below in the picture have been making their voices heard more and more behind closed doors to senior ranking officers until now,” Burk wrote in a blog post on May 3.

“This overt display of the black lives matter movement is not, in itself wrong, but to do so while in uniform is completely unprofessional and not in keeping with what the USMA stands for,” Burk wrote.

Burk went on to cite several rules that the black female cadets allegedly violated when they raised fists for the photograph.

On Monday, The Army Times reported West Point has launched an official investigation.

“We can confirm that the cadets in this photo are members of the U.S. Military Academy’s Class of 2016. Academy officials are conducting an inquiry into the matter,” West Point’s director of public affairs said in an email statement.

The controversy, fueled by hundreds of online comments, shows the widening cultural gap between blacks and whites in this country, particularly when it comes to policing.

But let’s look at what else is going on.

First of all, the Black Lives Matter movement did not come up with the “raised fist.” The gesture dates back centuries, and other groups have used it as a symbol of resistance against violence, including feminists.

That this symbol is relevant today shows we still have too much injustice in the world.

But unless those young women wrapped themselves in a “Black Lives Matter” banner to take the traditional West Point photo, I don’t see how they could be accused of engaging in politics.

No. What these accomplished black female cadets are really being condemned for is daring to display black solidarity.

The same paranoia that had some white folks up in arms over the “fist-bump” between President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign is at work here.

Brenda Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point grad and chair of the U.S. Military Academy’s Board of Visitors, defended the black female cadets.

“I knew it was their expression of pride and unity, but I am old enough to know that it would be interpreted negatively by many white observers,” Fulton told The Army Times.

Hopefully, West Point will have the counsel of a diverse panel of officers when they examine the merits of this complaint.

In this instance, what they are likely to find is the “raised fist” salute is more about the group’s achievement than it is about a political allegiance.

A reader, concerned about how the black cadets are being characterized, took the words right out of my mouth.

“This thing is being blown out of proportion,” he said.

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