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Critics of black women cadets read too much in a gesture

This undated image obtained from Twitter on Saturday,

This undated image obtained from Twitter on Saturday, May 7, 2016 shows 16 black, female cadets in uniform with their fists raised while posing for a photograph at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. 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. Credit: AP

West Point officials have decided against punitive action for 16 black female cadets who sparked nationwide controversy by posing for a group photo with their fists raised.

Good. They’ll get some counseling but graduate on time, which they have earned despite the crazy commotion the photo stirred up.

The women are young. They were celebrating their upcoming graduation. Maybe they didn’t know how easy it is for some black people to alarm some white people — especially when we are black people in groups.

The 16 women were following an old school tradition by posing in historical-style uniforms before graduation later in May. Controversy erupted because of the upraised fists.

An investigation determined that the cadets had no political message in mind. That would have violated the prohibitions against political activities by active service members.

Meanwhile, Internet chatter about the matter exploded.

The New York Times quoted blogger John Berk, a white former drill sergeant, as calling the pose an “overt display of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Berk told the Times via email that he had “disciplined soldiers for making Nazi salutes in photos, and felt the raised fist was not much different.”

And you don’t have to be white to feel that way. In a post, former Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican and retired Army lieutenant colonel, said the young women should apologize to their class and to the academy. “(W) hat if these were 16 white male West Point cadets from the South who took a picture in uniform with the Confederate battle flag?”

Excuse me? Confederate battle flag? Nazi salutes? If you think every raised black fist means Black Lives Matter, you need to learn more about black people — just as we black folks always have been obliged to know what gestures might upset white people.

Although the cadets weren’t talking as the matter is investigated, NPR helpfully quoted the Facebook page insights of Mary Tobin, who graduated from West Point about 13 years ago. The raised fists, she wrote, were not a “sign of allegiance to any political movement,” but “an act of unity amongst sisters and a symbol of achievement.”

“Our attrition rates are on par with the class at large,” she wrote, “but can you imagine what it must feel like to live, train, study, eat, cry, laugh, struggle and succeed in an environment where for 4 years, the majority of the people there don’t look like you, it’s hard for them to relate to you, they oftentimes don’t understand you, and the only way to survive is to shrink your blackness or assimilate.”

It’s a familiar story to many of us who ever have been one of the first members of a minority group in a school or workplace. Having an extended family of “brothers” or “sisters” who share the pain helps ease anxieties, even when your signals of celebration alarm folks who don’t know much about black folks besides crime stories.

More than a century after Henry O. Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point in 1877, the 16 cadets in the photo represented all but one of the black women in a graduating class of about 1,000, according to the Times. Yet, as an Army veteran from the last century, I am proud to see even that tiny percentage of black women. It signals a growing respect in this country for the contributions that every race and gender can make to our nation, even if we sometimes make each other nervous.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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