When Vice President Mike Pence visited the Virginia Military Academy, the Black students disappeared.
That is not a metaphor.
Everyone loves a good metaphor. But Mike Pence is not the personification of VMI’s racism, and there are much better ways to compare 181-year old VMI—the oldest state-supported military college in the U.S.—with the 244-year-old country in which it sits. Geologists have never seen a molehill evolve into a mountain range. Few veterinarians can recall a camel spine being fractured by a straw. And VMI is not a metaphor for America.
Black people built America. The Virginia Military Institute, on the other hand, began as an all-white male college. Black people were in Virginia since 1619 but Black students couldn’t enroll at VMI for the school’s first 129 years. While America pretends to be a democracy, VMI does not. America feigns progress while VMI unapologetically clings to its past. At least America tries to camouflage institutional inequality. VMI, however, will not even concede that systemic racism exists.
For years, Black students at VMI have used every conceivable method to tell the leadership how the school fosters an environment that is openly hostile to non-white students. They told professors. They wrote letters. They spoke to the media. The authorities at VMI met each successive attempt with indifference and contempt.
According to a dozen current and former VMI cadets who spoke to The Root, the administrators won’t even pretend to substantively address issues of racism, sexism and harassment at the school. Instead, VMI’s position seems to be that cadets at VMI cannot be “victims of racism” because there is no race at the beloved institution. So, when VMI welcomed Mike Pence—along with Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), both VMI grads—to its campus on Sept. 10, a group of students decided to protest by becoming a literal example of their treatment.
They became invisible.
The school’s overseers still haven’t publicly acknowledged that students are disgruntled. They have yet to offer anything other than performative rhetoric that ignores the students’ requests and doubled down on white supremacy. They continue to respond to Black students’ allegations of inequality by saying nothing and doing even less.
If metaphors were adequate explainers, the school’s response to racism at VMI would be a perfect allegory for the Trump administration’s response to ongoing protests against injustice and inequality. But Mike Pence’s visit was not the last straw; Black students were not making a mountain out of a molehill and VMI is not America.
This story is not a metaphor.
This story is a simile.
Mike Pence is as racist as the white supremacist Confederacy revered by VMI…
Because the Virginia Military Institute is like America.
Why Is #VMISoWhite?
Nestled in the tiny town of Lexington, Va., the Virginia Military Institute was founded in 1839 as an all-white male military college. U.S. News’ most recent rankings list VMI as the 69th best liberal arts college in the country and the 11th best in Virginia. Its distinguished alumni include current Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who graduated from VMI in 1981 with a degree in
blackface technology biology. The college was an important supplier of Confederate soldiers, including 15 generals, when Southern states decided they would rather not be a part of America if it meant they couldn’t indiscriminately rape, torture and enslave Africans.
In 1968, VMI became the last public college in the state of Virginia to admit Black students. It would be almost another three decades before a female cadet enrolled in the school. It is Virginia’s only state-supported college or university without an office of inclusion or diversity. The student body of 1,698 is six percent Black, according to the State Council of Higher Education For Virginia.
“If you see a Black person on campus, it’s fair to assume that he’s an NCAA athlete,” said one senior cadet who spoke to The Root on the condition of anonymity. “And most of the time you’d be correct.”
The notion that the majority of VMI’s Black student cadets are athletes was a common theme of every individual who spoke to The Root and was confirmed by our analysis of the college’s athletic rosters. During the 2019-2020 school year, 58 of VMI’s 102 African American students played an NCAA Division I sport.
Although the school existed for 20 years before Virginia joined 12 other Southern States to form a white supremacist nation, the institute prides itself on its ties to Confederate culture, a fact highlighted by its most celebrated alumnus, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, who remains at the literal center of the campus tradition and culture. Jackson was a member of VMI’s faculty when he left to lead the Confederate Army’s “Stonewall Brigade,” earning the slave-owning traitor an unrivaled place of prestige and glory at the institute.
VMI’s infamous statue of Stonewall Jackson has become the symbol for the institution’s oppression and mistreatment of its Black students because the school’s culture is simile steeped in white supremacy…like America.
“When you first get there, you’re on the bottom of the totem pole,” explained 2020 graduate Kaleb Tucker to The Root. “When you leave your barracks—which are your dorms—rats have to salute Stonewall Jackson. In other words, pay respect to a Confederate leader.”
“Rats” is VMI’s nickname for first-year cadets on the school’s “Rat Line”—a tradition of informal indoctrination “designed to instill and reinforce character traits that will serve a cadet well during his or her cadet years and in life after VMI.” While the rats are no longer formally required to salute the monument to a literal military traitor, the practice is still honored by many students and informally encouraged by upperclassmen, who are essentially the rats’ de-facto superiors.
“They took it off paper but it’s still enforced,” said Tucker. “It’s a class system, so anyone can order you to do anything. They can get you in trouble, scream in your face, haze you during workouts and even [subject rats to] administrative trouble. Somebody will get you in trouble for something else but really it’s for not saluting the statue.”
“There’s two types of people at VMI,” Tucker added. “There’s the people that say: ‘This is what the school stands for and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t have come here.’ Then there are the people that say “It’s tradition and these Confederate people that are memorialized here were really great people and great leaders. And the school was built on great leaders and great people. So it’s traditional to keep those aspects around and there’s no racial side of it.” So those are the two main narratives that you get from people.”
Instructors are also “encouraged to integrate the philosophies of Confederate figures into the curriculum,” according to a former faculty member who spoke to The Root.
“It’s drilled into your head as you’re being hazed,” Tucker added. “You have something called a Rat Bible. You’re forced to read this bible, which is basically how great Stonewall Jackson was; why you should respect him; why he has this statue there—stuff like that. There’s no actual education on the Confederacy. It’s all just drilled into your head by people or by the rules.”
Rats are eventually sworn in during another one of the college’s annual traditions. Each year, the students travel to New Market, Va., to commemorate the 1864 South’s victory in the Battle of New Market. The reenactment of Confederate traitors charging the field to kill American soldiers culminates with VMI cadets laying a wreath at the feet of the statue of “Virginia Mourning Her Dead,” followed by a tribute to the treasonous alumni who died protecting the institution of human bondage.
The glorification of the Confederacy isn’t the only reason VMI is so white. In spite of General Order No. 16 (pdf) —the university’s written policy against discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct—current and former VMI cadets describe a campus atmosphere openly hostile to anyone who is not a white male.
In 2017, Col. William Wanovich, VMI’s commandant of cadets, posed for a picture as he pretended to climb students dressed as “Trump’s wall” for Halloween.
No disciplinary action was taken.
Another former student wrote that an upperclassman spit in his face the day he chose to transfer, telling him that he was only there because the school “needs minorities.” Eight students described how Black students are routinely targeted for violations of the school’s honor code, sometimes for offenses like “being ratchet” or “ghetto.” And, because the college is student-run, even when Black students report the incidents, the jury in the cadet-led “honor court” are usually composed of white males.
“VMI doesn’t like to keep any statistic based on race because they say ‘the only race at VMI is green’,” one student told The Root. “But I’d be willing to bet that Black cadets get more demerits and honor-code violations than white cadets.”
Another current cadet and a VMI alumnus recounted another incident that illustrates the climate at VMI. According to both sources, who spoke independently of each other, a prospective Black athlete was visiting the school on a recruiting trip when a white cadet decided to introduce himself.
“The white kid walked up and said—and I quote: ‘What’s up with all this nigger shit?’” said the alumnus, who witnessed the incident. “To sum it up, there was no disciplinary action taken on that cadet. And the second in command kind of made light of it, like we were in the wrong for even caring about it.”
“You hear the n-word a lot of from people who aren’t Black,” said Tucker, while other students revealed that Confederate flags are commonplace in the barracks. Students say when students speak out, their pleas are ignored or routinely dismissed.
Because VMI is a public institution, Black cadets are sure to encounter “flaggers”—Confederate enthusiasts who flock to the campus to worship the white supremacist monuments sprinkled around campus. And while VMI embraces its alumni who betrayed their country, it recently warned Black students not to participate in Black Lives Matter protests or even the local Martin Luther King Jr. parade, which occurs on the same weekend as Virginia’s Lee-Jackson parade honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The parade traditionally ended at VMI until the school banned neo-Confederate re-enactors from bringing their weapons on campus.
“When they recruit you, they make it seem like it’s hard but it’s fair,” one current rat who earned an athletic scholarship told The Root. “Being that I play football, I’m used to white people trying to be tough but fair. But it’s only fair if you’re white. If you’re not, you have to put up with a lot. It’s not just the statues. It’s the whole Confederacy of whiteness.”
And if you think it’s hard being a Black man on campus, try being a Black woman at a school that is 76 percent white and 89 percent male.
“This place has truly broken me down mentally physically and emotionally,” wrote Ingrid, a Black female cadet, who is also Muslim. “VMI takes away our identity and tries to punish us for who we are.”
“They were asking us to commemorate people on the wrong side of history and to celebrate people who wanted African Americans in bondage, raped and enslaved,” Virginia gubernatorial Jennifer Carroll Foy told the Washington Post. “The problem is that Black Americans think that heritage is full of hate.”
Aside from her quest to become America’s first Black female governor, Foy was also one of the first Black women to graduate from VMI.
To be clear, Black students don’t think the culture at VMI is racist.
Students think VMI is racist. White faculty members think VMI has a toxic culture of white supremacy. VMI’s Black alumni have experienced insidious discrimination. Many of the school’s white alumni witnessed it.
“I can’t tell you how conflicted I was & how many times I called my now wife who is a POC in tears to share my witnessing institutional racism but didn’t speak out,” tweeted J.B. Weber, a white VMI alum. “I was a coward. I saw racism happening before my eyes and was too afraid of the system to speak. I should have used my position and White privilege to protect [Black and non-white, male cadets].”
Jamie (not her real name), a white former VMI professor who spent years teaching at the institution, says she was diagnosed with PTSD after leaving VMI. In tears, she shared how she witnessed a white cadre (upperclassmen) tell a Black rat that they were going to send him “back where he came from.”
“When I got to VMI, I was the trademark ‘good white person.’” Jamie explained. “By the end of my first year at VMI, I realized that I was a terrible white person who just thought she was good. Being at VMI, seeing experiences in the classroom where white students threatened to report Black students to the commandant’s office because they thought their hair was not in regulation…Having those experiences, it radicalized me.”
At the center of the dispute is Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III. Peay is a VMI alumnus and a retired Army general whose sons attended VMI as did his father before him. He has ruled VMI with a strong hand since 2003, and as one senior cadet said: “General Peay doesn’t give a fuck.”
The Pence Rebellion
After the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, Kaleb Tucker organized a petition asking Peay and others in the faculty to address racism and remove the monuments to white supremacy. The petition has garnered nearly 1,500 signatures and specifically urged for the removal of the Stonewall Jackson statue, explaining:
The Virginia Military Institute strives on the tradition and structure that it was built on in 1839. Unfortunately, that same tradition and structure has been the root of racism at the institute. This petition was created with the purpose of forcing VMI to acknowledge the racism and Black prejudice that still occurs at VMI. A starting point do doing that is to tear down the statue of Stonewall Jackson, a confederate general.
To his credit, Peay responded with an eloquent, seven-page letter that can be summed up with one word:
“Our school’s history has been intertwined with the history of Virginia and the Civil War,” read General Peay’s letter. “Stonewall Jackson was a professor at VMI, a West Point graduate who served in combat in the Mexican War, a military genius, a staunch Christian, and yes, a Confederate General. Throughout the years, the primary focus on honoring VMI’s history has been to celebrate principles of honor, integrity, character, courage, service, and selflessness of those associated with the institute. It is not to in any way condone racism, much less slavery.”
In a second letter to students, Peay doubled down on the notion that celebrating a nation that condoned slavery isn’t the same as celebrating or condoning slavery. Peay explained that VMI will “retain the foundation of values and principles set in the Institute’s early years” but shift the focus to celebrating the “remarkable history of our second century.”
As soon as the 2020 school year began, VMI illustrated its commitment to racial healing by hosting a renowned advocate for diversity—Mike Pence—who once said Confederate monuments helped Americans “remember our history.”
“It’s in poor taste, tone-deaf and counter to everything Gen. Peay said in those emails,” a member of VMI’s Promaji Club (from a Swahili word meaning “togetherness) told The Root. “If he was serious about changing the culture here and making a place for VMI in this movement we’d have a speaker we trust to come and share real knowledge of this social movement.”
The club, which promotes diversity and operates much like a Black Student Union (remember, there is no race at VMI), has invited members of the VMI faculty to every meeting since its inception but, for some reason, none of VMI’s leadership have accepted the invitation.
“We’ve invited the leadership to many meetings,” said a Promaji member. “None of them have ever shown up. None of them ever sent a delegate or anything like that.”
Promaji Club members were used to being ignored. But members were dismayed by the school’s invitation to Pence; the club wrote a letter directly to Peay asking him to disinvite Pence.
“These past few months, evidence of systematic and institutional racism abounds,” wrote the club. “The wrongful police executions of Black men and women such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the recent events in Los Angeles and Kenosha, the racism exhibited by former commandant stag members here in our own institution.”
“Hosting the Vice President, in light of his recent divisive rhetoric regarding police brutality, the tragic Kenosha shootings, and the current racial tension facing our nation will only further divide the corps of cadets and perpetuate the polarization and division within our ranks,” the cadets noted. “[I]t is our greatest wish that you would reconsider hosting this event on the grounds that we believe the presence of Vice President Mike Pence in our dear home will categorically and unambiguously result in not only further division, but ultimately perpetuate the mistreatment and ostracisation of minority cadets and those who support them.”
“Our [Promaji Club] adviser is a faculty member; he’s in and out of meetings with the commandant and Gen. Peay’s chief of staff, Col. Iman,” a Promaji member told The Root two days before Pence’s Sept. 10 visit. “They may allow us to not go. We don’t know for sure. Because if it’s optional for a group then it has to be optional for the corps and that will not happen here especially with these two visitors.”
So the cadets came up with two options:
- Plan A: If they were forced to go, they would flip over their masks during Pence’s speech to reveal the names of victims of police brutality.
- Plan B: Peay would allow the cadets to skip the Pence hootenanny, and the club would write a “note to General Peay thanking him for not making us go (In a sly respectful, but lowkey disrespectful kind of way) and explain why we didn’t go.”
But remember, General Peay doesn’t give a fuck. He made attendance mandatory.
Apparently, aware that shenanigans were afoot, the students were forbidden from bringing cameras or cell phones to document the speech or the planned protest.
“I had to like literally walk people through the process of what’s worth it and what’s not worth it because so many students were upset and they just wanted to walk out altogether,” a senior cadet explained. “I know they wanted to make a statement that was big and loud, but I know that the repercussions are not like a regular school. At regular school, you get thrown out and that’s the end of it. Here, we got a lot more on the line. Some students played basketball, football; some of us are commissioning as officers in the military, and you know doing something here like that will be death.
“That would have embarrassed Gen. Peay, and I’m pretty sure he would dangle that in front of our faces. So a lot of students wanted to take it to a hundred, and it took some convincing to bring them down and to say that we’ve got to be a little bit more strategic. It might not be worth doing all that.”
So the mostly Black group of students arrived at the pre-speech formation ready to hear Pence. But, curiously, some of them still had cell phones. Others arrived at formation dressed in out-of-regulation uniforms.
Of course, the white cadre wouldn’t let the Black cadets get away with these slight discrepancies. So the student leaders sent the Black students back to the barracks to change their uniforms, and the Black students simply didn’t return. Had the Black students not received the message? Were they dumb? Was this just a metaphor for resistance?
For some strange reason, none of the major photo services have pictures of Mike Pence’s visit to VMI. The few photos that exist do not show the crowd. But if you look at the only picture of the audience that we could find, you’ll notice an astonishing lack of Black faces.
One person did notice.
Two days after Mike Pence’s visit, the leaders of the Promaji Club were notified that Gen. Peay wanted to meet with the club to “figure out what’s wrong in the barracks.”
At the conclusion of each interview with VMI’s Black alumni and students, I asked each of them the same question.
“If your brother or little cousin came to you tomorrow and told you they were thinking about attending VMI, what would you tell them?”
Despite the oppression, the trauma and literally being forced to salute white supremacy, every single student said they would caution their loved one about the campus atmosphere but would give VMI their blessings. They all cited the institution’s “great education. They really believed it instilled them with treasured values.”
Well, it all goes back to the Pence revolt.
When VMI’s faculty caught wind of the Black cadets’ plans, the students were forced to come up with another strategy, so the group devised a tactic that they knew wouldn’t fail. Their plan was based on their experience at “Mother I” and the inescapable history of this country.
Black VMI alums and students would allow their loved ones to attend VMI for the same reason the cadets knew they would be sent back to the barracks—they know similes.
The Virginia Military Institute is racist…
In response to The Root’s request for an interview with Gen. Peay, Col. Bill Wyatt, VMI’s director of communication and marketing, pointed us to Peay’s July letter, adding that Peay was not available for an interview.
“Additionally, the VMI Board of Visitors affirmed Gen. Peay’s way forward at their meeting earlier in the week,” Wyatt told The Root in an email. “Senior administrators are in the process of developing action items to achieve the vision and will report their progress to the Board of Visitors prior to their next meeting in January. Gen. Peay met with cadets (including those of color), faculty, and staff as he was developing his vision and continues to meet with them on a regular basis. As he said in his letter, racism and discrimination have no place at VMI.”