by James A. Bacon
Sigh. I am weary of writing about race in Virginia, I really am. But the Washington Post never tires and never rests. America-as-endemically-racist nation has become a dominant narrative of 2020 and the newspaper’s enthusiasm for stories alleging racism everywhere (but itself) shows no sign of abating. This is profoundly discouraging for anyone who, like I do, sees America as a flawed but fundamentally good and decent nation. So, 0nce again, I take to my keyboard to engage in some critical analysis.
This morning the Post devotes a third of its front page and two full inside pages to an article about Rafael Jenkins, a freshman who was subjected to a racist taunt during Hell Week at the Virginia Military Institute and then, months later, was expelled for an alleged honor violation. My problem is not the reporting that went into the story but how staff writer Ian Shapira and his editors framed the facts and the sweeping conclusions they drew from them.
Here’s the headline in the print edition: “A lynching threat, a cheating charge. A black cadet at the Virginia Military Institute was subjected to racism during his initiation. Later, it was his integrity that the schools questioned when it placed him under investigation.”
The headline in the online edition puts it even more baldly: “A Black VMI cadet was threatened with a lynching, then with expulsion.”
Polish up that Pulitzer. It looks like The Washington Post is vying again for the big prize in journalism.
This is the latest of several articles Shapira has written detailing individual instances of racism and prejudice at VMI, an institution where, he has repeatedly said that “relentless racism” prevails. In the wake of the first article, Governor Ralph Northam, a VMI grad, expressed dismay at the “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” and appointed a task force to investigate racism at the university. Declaring that he had lost the confidence of the Governor, VMI’s Superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, submitted his resignation. One of the more shocking incidents Shapira described in his original expose was when a white sophomore “told a Black freshman during Hell Week that he’d ‘lynch’ his body and use his ‘dead corpse as a punching bag.'” In today’s article, Shapira gives full treatment to that incident.
Rafael Jenkins, a high school basketball star in Charlotte, N.C. was recruited to play on VMI’s team as a point guard. The team gave him a warm welcome, but he was uncomfortable participating in VMI traditions that honored Civil War heroes General Stonewall Jackson and the cadets who fell in the battle of New Market. As the son of an African American father and Hispanic mother, he had no desire to glorify those who fought to preserve slavery.
An enduring institution at VMI is “Hell Week,” during which “rats” — declared to be the lowest of the low — have their heads shaven (females get their hair cut short) and undergo a week of military training and indoctrination into the ways of VMI. They learn how to wear their uniforms, how to march, and how to clean a rifle. They are given a copy of the Rat Bible, which they are expected to keep within their possession at all times and to memorize. Failure to regurgitate VMI facts and lore can lead to punishment.
As the university website describes the experience, upper-class cadets enforce all rules and “keep the rats in line.” “Unlike normal college freshman the rats lead lives that are harsh and at time brutal. However, the treatment that the rats get from The Cadre is only preparing them for the real world, the world outside barracks walls, which will be much harsher on them than The Cadre.” The university bills Hell Week as “the most grueling and demanding experience” that Rats will have experienced to that point in their lives. The week concludes with the “breakout” in which packs of Rats brawl their way through gauntlets of upperclassmen to their freedom and elevation to full-fledged cadets. Needless to say, upperclassmen relish issuing basic-training style insults designed to humiliate the Rats.
That is the background, only hinted at in the Post, of the racial incident. One morning, when called upon to chant the names of the 10 VMI students killed at New Market, Jenkins declined. He took a swig of water instead.
A White sophomore noticed. The cadet approached Jenkins and said into his ear: “Jenkins, if you don’t sound off, I’m going to lynch you … and use your dead corpse as a punching bag.”
The Post goes into great detail describing the events that followed. Jenkin’s father reported the incident to the VMI basketball coach. The commandant of cadets, William Wanovich, contacted the father. The case was immediately handed over to the Student Executive Committee, a body that examines serious student misconduct. During the hearing, the white student admitted his action, apologized publicly, and then in a face-to-face meeting apologized to Jenkins personally. The executive committee recommended a year-long suspension with an option to return to VMI, which the administration accepted. The offender left the university and never came back. (In an email to Shapira, he said he was ashamed of his racist words.)
Let us pause a moment to take our bearings. Clearly, the white student’s attempt to go full drill instructor mode — think R Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket” — went grotesquely wrong. In today’s world, you can insult a man’s character, his mama, his paternity, even his masculinity. But given the sensitivity of race relations, you cannot threaten, even hyperbolically, to lynch a black person. The young white man deserved a severe punishment for breaking the taboo — and he got a severe punishment, even if it wasn’t the permanent expulsion that some, including Jenkins’ father, called for.
To say, as the WaPo headline did, that Jenkins was “threatened with lynching” without explaining the context of Rat Line is highly misleading. No one involved in the incident thought for an instant that the threat was to be taken literally. Furthermore, the administrative machinery of the Institute moved quickly and forcefully to punish the offending student. To insinuate that the incident is emblematic of “structural racism” at the Institute is absurd. Indeed, to any fair-minded person, the resolution of the incident constitutes evidence that most cadets and the VMI administration do not countenance open displays of racism.
The other incident explored in the article — Jenkins’ expulsion for cheating — is more ambiguous. Based on the evidence presented in the article, readers are likely to conclude that Jenkins was done an injustice. However, the article provides no tangible evidence — only statistical disparities in the rate at which minorities are found guilty of honor offenses at VMI — to suggest that the charges and outcome were racially motivated.
In March Jenkins was summoned to VMI’s Honor Court, a group of upperclass cadets who render judgment on violations of the school’s honor code: “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.” Any violation results in dismissal.
The Honor Court leveled two charges relating to alleged cheating on a math test the previous December. As Shapira tells the story, the prosecution alleged that Jenkins had cheated off a female cadet who sat two seats to his right with no one in between. The professor had suspected one of the two had cheated after noticing unlikely similarities in their answers. Undoubtedly fueling suspicions was the fact that, the previous year, Jenkins’s test score on the ACT college-admissions exam had been flagged for an unusually high number of responses on his answer sheet identical to that of another person in the same room. The probability of the similarities being due to chance was “very small,” ACT had said, but the testing proctor had noticed “no suspicious activity” and the matter was dropped.
The case against Jenkins was entirely circumstantial, the Post contends. Based on answers to a previous test, the math instructor suspected that either Jenkins or the female student was cheating. He enlisted another student to secretly monitor the two during the test in question, and the peculiar pattern of answers suggested again that someone was cheating. The informant noted that the female cadet made “no suspicious movements” but that Jenkins “moved quite a bit during the exam.” On the other hand, he also noted that the female cadet “seemed as if she was using her arms to cover her work,” and the informant never witnessed Jenkins engaged in any overt peaking.
Jenkins, of course, protested his innocence.
According to one juror, a black woman, her fellow jurors engaged in unsubstantiated speculation. “Jurors were stereotyping and saying, ‘Well, he’s a basketball player, and he probably didn’t have a chance to study.'” She felt that prosecutors did not find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
One juror voted to acquit Jenkins, but the other six found him guilty. Under VMI’s rules, acquittal requires three of the student jury’s seven votes. On paper, students have the right to appeal to the VMI Board of Visitors, but Jenkins’ parents, believing their son had been railroaded, did not bother. The family loaded up Jenkins’ belongings and headed home. In a night-time ritual held to the beating of drums, his expulsion was announced to the entire corps.
Keith Kline, Jenkins’ faculty adviser who testified on his behalf, found the verdict disturbing. The prosecution’s evidence, he wrote a month after the trial, had “gaping holes.” The case was the thinnest he had ever seen in his 14 years at VMI. He remained “baffled” how a jury of peers could have found him guilty.
Shapira does not present the arguments and evidence provided by the prosecution in a coherent fashion, so readers don’t know whether or not the article provides a fair and balanced presentation. However, he clearly betrays his own bias with a gratuitous aside about the Honor Court’s three-jurors-to-acquit rule. “Unanimous jury verdicts have long been considered constitutionally required in federal courts for serious crimes,” he writes. “In April, the Supreme Court ruled that unanimity is required in such cases for state courts, too, and said that non-unanimous jury verdicts were rooted in Jim Crow racial discrimination laws.”
The irrelevance of the comparison should be obvious to all. First, crimes classified as “serious” are violent crimes, and honor offenses aren’t violent crimes. Secondly, non-unanimous jury verdicts may have been rooted in Jim Crow discrimination, but VMI’s honor code precedes Jim Crow, and VMI was all-white during the segregation era. The three-votes-to-acquit rule would have been applied to whites only. Unlike the verdicts the Supreme Court was referring to, it is not a relic of racial discrimination.
But let’s set aside those concerns. Let’s assume that Jenkins was unjustly convicted, as the evidence presented in the WaPo article suggests he could have been. Was he convicted because he was black? Does this case illustrate “relentless racism?”
Judging from Shapira’s account, race never entered the picture in the trial — if it had Shapira surely would have made a point of it. The only stereotyping that occurred was when student jurors stereotyped Jenkins as a basketball player. As an athlete with additional time burdens, the thinking went, he might have faced a temptation that others did not.
Shapira’s evidence of racism is statistical. Honor Court jurors are mostly white. And African-American students were expelled for honor code violations at a disproportionately high rate, according to data the Post obtained for the three academic years between 2017 and 2020.
Though Black cadets made up about 6 percent of the student body, they represented about 43 percent of those expelled due to honor code violations. Twelve out of the 28 VMI students dismissed in those three academic years were Black. Like Jenkins, they played a sport.
When students of color are included in the count, the number of expelled rises to 15 or about 54 percent of the total, even though minorities made up about 21 percent of the student population in that three-year period.
It is not unreasonable to hypothesize, based on this disparity, that racial bias might be at work. But the evidence is, shall we say, circumstantial. As a VMI official told the Post, the Honor Court does not seek out cases. Since the 2015-16 academic year, there have been 63 honor court cases and 55 convictions. The vast majority are referred by faculty for “violations that occur in the classroom” — in other words for cheating. That’s a small number, a tiny fraction of the 10,000 students who have been at VMI at that time.
Perhaps the honor-code system is biased. Conversely, perhaps the number of honor code charges accurately reflects the incidence of cheating and other violations. There is no way to know based upon the limited evidence presented in Shapira’s article.
I would say this: This is a topic that Northam’s investigatory commission should look into. If an unconscious bias against black students does exist, VMI needs to expunge it. There are restrictions on information that VMI can provide a media outlet like the Post, but the study commission should have an opportunity to dig deeper and come up with more conclusive answers.
But the Post doesn’t call for an inquiry into the facts. The Post has all the evidence it needs to declare VMI a relentlessly racist institution. The journalistic standards of proof of guilt, it seems, are even lower than the standards of the VMI honor court.