In Speech to Cadets, Northam Defends His Treatment of VMI

Photo credit: WBDJ TV

by James A. Bacon

A year after denouncing the “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at his alma mater the Virginia Military Institute, Governor Ralph Northam extended an olive branch of sorts. Delivering a speech last night to VMI’s 1,700 cadets, he offered praise of the Institute while also justifying measures he took to transform it in line with his vision of diversity and inclusion.

“We have a strong and thriving Virginia — a Commonwealth that opens its arms to people from around the world. The diversity that we’ve embraced in Virginia makes us stronger,” Northam said. “You will be out in this world, and no matter where you go — the military, or to a private sector job — you are going to encounter a wide variety of people, of all faiths and backgrounds.”

Implicit in those remarks is that VMI was a racist institution until the installation of new leadership in the past year. While Northam tactfully did not call VMI racist in his speech, he did allude to the flying of the Confederate flag, the playing of “Dixie,” and the glorification of the Lost Cause 44 years ago when he was a cadet.

Since then, Northam said, he has come to understand “what a large and diverse world we live in” and he has learned the importance of “diversity, being inclusive, being welcoming, and treating people fairly and with dignity.”

It is not immediately evident from the text of the speech what Northam was hoping to accomplish. My take is that Northam has residual feelings of loyalty to the Institute, which he credited with giving him a “world-class” education, and that he was trying to make peace with a community that he angered with his sweeping denunciations and heavy-handed tactics. Without waiting for the results of the investigation last year, he forced the resignation of the previous superintendent, J.H. Binford Peay III. He also installed a Board of Visitors willing to accelerate the removal of Confederate statues and iconography from the “post,” as the campus is known, and enact a progressive “diversity” agenda, such as hiring a chief diversity officer.

It is not likely that Northam will find much forgiveness from thousands of alumni who were offended by his slander of VMI’s reputation. When the Washington Post highlighted a handful of incidents, a few of which were unquestionably racist in nature and some of which were merely problematic to people with Leftist sensitivities, Northam accepted them as proof that racism was endemic. Then he hired the Barnes & Thornburg law firm to “investigate” racism and sexism. Adding little in the way of concrete findings, Barnes & Thornburg relied upon perceptions collected in interviews and a biased questionnaire to reach fore-ordained conclusions. 

Superintendent Peay, respected by many for his stewardship of the military academy, had initiated a review of VMI traditions and Confederate iconography before he was cashiered. VMI revered both Stonewall Jackson, who taught and VMI and was one of the great battlefield commanders in American history, and VMI cadets who fought bravely in the Civil War battle of New Market. It was increasingly evident that although these traditions honored martial virtues, they created significant conflicts for African-American cadets.

Northam, who underwent a crisis of conscience after his blackface controversy, reminisced in the speech about his time at VMI when he was too busy surviving the Rat Line to question its traditions.

“It didn’t occur to me to ask, who is that a statue of? When was it erected? Why is that person being honored? Who decided that we would all salute him?” Northam said. “When I saw the Confederate flag, it didn’t occur to me to ask, what does flying the Confederate flag, or playing ‘Dixie,’ symbolize? Why are we glorifying the Lost Cause? And might these symbols be offensive to some of my fellow cadets?”

“If you haven’t experienced sexism or racism yourself — perhaps because you look like me — and you haven’t paid much attention to what it looks like, you’re going to have a very hard time recognizing it,” Northam said.

Northam said that VMI has much to be proud of. “From this small school have come countless citizen soldiers, military leaders, doctors, lawyers, professional athletes, and people who dedicate their lives to serving our country in important ways.” Some VMI traditions have value in molding young people, he said.

But other traditions do not, he added. “Gone are the statues that glorify rebellion against the United States. In place are new provisions for privacy and safety for all — especially women. The Institute has now stated a commitment to diversity, and to making certain that all cadets, faculty, and staff, feel safe and welcome.”

Northam never acknowledged that VMI might have changed in the 44 years since he was there. He never alluded to the sketchiness of allegations of “systemic” racism and sexism based on cherry-picked, out-of-context quotes and surveys of perceptions driven as much by national narratives as actual events. At no time has Northam ever acknowledged that racism is alleged at every institution of higher education, nor has he, the Barnes & Thornburg investigators, or the Washington Post made the case that racism and sexism were more tolerated by the previous VMI administration or more prevalent at VMI than elsewhere.

The cadets listened respectfully to the governor. Despite considerable griping on social media and critical sentiments expressed in exit polling conducted by the independent student newspaper The Cadet, no one turned their backs or broke out in chants of “Let’s go Brandon.” Given the intensity of the emotions Northam has unleashed, that is all the affirmation the governor can reasonably expect.