WaPo Reduces VMI to a Black-and-White Morality Tale

by James A. Bacon

The latest blockbuster finding in The Washington Post’s jihad against the Virginia Military Institute: African-American cadets experienced racism four decades ago.

According to interviews with 12 African Americans who attended VMI at the same time as Governor Ralph Northam around 1980, black cadets endured frequent racist insults. They were uncomfortable with the veneration of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Some believed blacks were disproportionately harassed in the Ratline, and some said they were discounted for leadership positions because of their race. Two insisted that the Honor Court expelled them for cheating they did not commit.

Some of the anecdotes make for distressing reading. There is value in reminding ourselves what the African-American pioneers of integration at VMI had to endure. My problem is not with the perspectives highlighted by the Post but the perspectives that were ignored because they don’t fit its narrative of persistent and ongoing systemic racism. The country has changed in the past 40 years, but the Post won’t admit it.

Reporter Ian Shapira draws a straight line between the racism of 40 years past and racism at the Institute today. He quotes Darren McDew, who graduated from VMI and became a four-star Air Force General. “I’ve been saddened by what I’ve read about VMI,” he said, “but I am not surprised. No organization is immune from these problems.”

Some VMI alumni may resent Northam for ordering the probe, but McDew isn’t among them. He supports the investigation.

“I made an assumption, like many graduates who leave their institutions, that things were slowly progressing and that things couldn’t get worse,” McDew said. “I never put in my mind that the school could still be grappling in this manner with the things I saw 40 years ago. In hindsight, that’s a bit naive, because the country is dealing with all of these isms.”

The probe to which McDew alludes is the “equity audit” and racism investigation ordered by Governor Ralph Northam after a series of Post articles alleging that “relentless racism” continues at VMI today.

Apparently, Shapira ran out of modern-day racism stories to tell, so he dug way back in history to find some more. Here are angles he has yet to explore in his zeal to humble the Institute:

  • How have VMI leadership and policies changed over the past 40 years? Does the administration condone racism? Has the Institute changed once-revered traditions in order to become more inclusive?
  • Why are so many black VMI alumni still so loyal to the Institute? Was racism their defining experience there, or did they find value in the adversarial “Ratline” system and unique military culture? Did VMI help them become leaders? Did they find mentors among white faculty and staff? Did they find that the Ratline bred solidarity with most (if not all) white brother rats?
  • How does VMI’s experience track that of other Virginia colleges and universities? Did black students experience comparable racism 40 years ago in institutions not singled out for WaPo vilification?
  • Compare and contrast the experience of black students at VMI and, say, the University of Virginia today. Do black cadets feel as alienated from their school as black students at UVa? Do they self-segregate to the same degree? Or do they regard the Ratline as an equalizing experience without counterpart at other institutions?

In sum, is there anything positive about the VMI experience for black cadets? If there is, Shapira mentions it only incidentally in any of his articles, and he never explores the possibilities in any depth.

For example, Shapira does concede that several of the black alumni he interviewed still feel a strong loyalty to VMI. Some continue to wear a VMI ring, even though it bears an image of the Stonewall Jackson statue.

“If the ring was just of Stonewall Jackson, I wouldn’t wear it,” said Donald Mitchell, who would go on to become one of the first black Special Operations helicopter pilots in the Air Force. “The ring tells people that you persevered and went through something more difficult than what most college kids go through.”

Ron Carter, a basketball athlete who played with the Los Angeles Lakers after graduation and then became an administrator with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, also experienced racism but said he loved his VMI experience.

But it never occurs to Shapira to ask (or if he asks, to report) what exactly did Carter and others value from that experience? Other than noting that Carter considered Bill Blair, his white basketball coach, a father figure, Shapira never explores the question.

In Shapira’s telling, VMI was a hell-hole for African-Americans then, as it is now. He tells snippets of the VMI story that makes supporters hang their heads in shame — but nothing else — and he portrays those snippets as the entire picture. In the process he reduces complex and evolving reality into a black-and-white morality tale that does violence to the truth.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


9 responses to “WaPo Reduces VMI to a Black-and-White Morality Tale”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think it’s pretty clear that there have been issues at VMI – by now and one can argue with WaPo and Shiparo about the ins and outs of it but the idea that it was never an issue is clearly wrong.

    Here’s the thing. It the current world of media and journalism – there are more media than just WaPo to include major Conservative outlets.

    What is keeping the Conservative media from doing it’s own investigation and perhaps – reveal a more full (and fair) accounting?

    Why is it that the Conservative media chooses to do nothing then goes ape-crap when the liberal media – like WaPo does a story?

    And I’m serious At the very least – articles from the Washington Examiner, the Washington Star, even the Daily Caller – beyond just castigating libral media – they could do their own due diligence and get the more complete story out there.

  2. tmtfairfax Avatar

    I guess one might give the Post more weight had it not missed Ralph Northam’s “blackface antics” not in just one statewide election but two. The Post is a whore for the Democratic Party. Like I tell people, if I was stupid and dishonest, I’d write editorials for the Post.

    I’m hoping to try out the News & Observer when I move to see whether it still has some standards for its journalism. I used to like reading the news.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    VMI head coach Bill Blair is one of the greatest coaches and few people know about it. Hazzard, Kentucky man. All time leading scorer at Randolph Macon Academy in Front Royal. Solid shooter for VMI in a conservative era of small ball. Coached VMI from the cellar to the Elite Eight in just 4 seasons. Assistant coach for 6 different NBA teams. Led the Minnesota team as head coach in a doomed injury riddled season. Defensive genius. As assistant coach for Chicago Bulls he was one of the factors that led GM Rod Thorn to selecting Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft.

    1. Matt Adams Avatar
      Matt Adams

      Hazard Kentucky, is some very beautiful land.

  4. owen dunlap Avatar
    owen dunlap

    I dont know if the article mentions it or not ( i can not get past paywall) – but Gen McDew was the first AA ” first captain” ( regimental commander) at VMI – class of 1982 – the year after Northam graduated

  5. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    I heard the Post reporter on the radio this morning, as well, with John Reid on WRVA. I do not doubt any of the adverse experiences of those former students as reported, and I’m sure there were plenty more. He didn’t ask the question I once posed, would any of them encourage or discourage any student of this generation from attending. It seems some would encourage attendance based on their continued affection. I was in The Pit often when Ron Carter was winning basketball games, and I can tell you the cadets of his day were damn fond of him. Some graduate who ends up as a four star couldn’t have been too scarred by the VMI experience.

    I still expect it was just as bad for some at Tech or UVA or even W&M, but in those schools you didn’t have the Rat Line. It was likely a few who were being intentionally cruel, and then a few just being thoughtless.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Some might argue (and not sure I’d disagree) that VMI and the rat line teaches that there are all kinds of potential obstacles to achieving the mission and racism is one of them. The military is not for “snowflakes”.

      There is a pretty good movie about this – Men of Honor – I highly recommend it – true story.


  6. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Fall 1991, VPI. I was enrolled in Afro-American History class. HIST 3175 to be exact. Out of 30 or 35 students I was the only white student in the class. I was constantly ridiculed and called out in that class by my classmates in the presence of the instructor. On two occasions I can recall being followed by a group of men out of the class where the ridiculing and insults would continue on the side walk. I recall being shoved into a hedge bush on another occasion between the Newman Library and the Student Union by this same group of men. The day it stopped. Those boys saw me walking with my roommate Dave Frasier. Dave had just walked on the JV men’s basketball team and was president of the Society of Black Engineers. Give me a call Ian. Ian? Line is open. Great class. Great experience. Super talented professor. Got a chance to see what the other shoe feels like. Priceless. Thick skin is necessary in life.

  7. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “…also experienced racism but said he loved his VMI experience…”

    You are suggesting that because blacks can rise above racism we need not address it. Can’t get behind that.

Leave a Reply