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Army selective about symbolism

Army leadership found itself in uncomfortable terrain earlier this month when 16 black women West Point cadets posed, in uniform, with raised fists in an unofficial photo. There were other pictures taken, with other poses, but this one made the Internet rounds, with commentator John Burk criticizing the cadets, interpreting the image as a sign of support for groups "calling for the deaths of police officers, and even going so far as to call for the deaths of white Americans." West Point officials concluded there was no ill intent behind the photo (unlike civilians, cadets are prohibited from publicly expressing overt political views) but decided that, prior to graduation, these seniors would receive additional instruction to underscore the message that "a symbol or gesture that one group of people may find harmless may offend others."

Which sounds like a pretty even-handed way to address the issue - until you consider that the Army is pretty selective about what it classifies as offensive when those under scrutiny aren't black women.

Consider that when they begin their military careers, it's likely some of these cadets will be assigned to bases like Fort Gordon and Fort Benning, just two of the 10 Army installations named after prominent Confederates -- men who fought against the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery. But as newly commissioned officers, these women will have to serve their country while looking past the legacies of Gen. John Brown Gordon, a prominent member of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan, and Gen. Henry Lewis Benning, who decried "the fate which abolition will bring upon the white race."

After last year's shooting at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, when many, like writer Jamie Malanowski, called on senior Army leaders to reconsider base names honoring the Confederacy, Army leaders defended the status quo, saying every installation "is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history. Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies."

The statement was brilliant public relations doublespeak; simultaneously asserting that history matters -- and that it does not. Left unaddressed is the question of whether a place like Fort Benning, might be more appropriately named after one of the notable figures who have passed through its gates, Gen. Omar Bradley or Secretary of State Colin Powell, who fought for the United States, not against it. For these cadets, this episode will serve as a reminder that while they serve, the onus will be on them, as African American women, to deflect cries of racism every time they openly acknowledge our troubled history. For West Point leaders, there's a reminder, as well: that the 16 women represent all but two of the black women in this year's graduating class.

If Army leaders don't commit to altering this lack of diversity, our military and our nation will be weaker for it.

Jason Dempsey is an adjunct senior fellow of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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