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November 18, 1987 - Image 46

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1987-11-18

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A Black Leader for Army

West Point names an
old grad to a top job-
and polishes its appeal
When Fred Gorden graduated from
the U.S. Military Academy at West
Point in 1962, he was the only black
among 600 cadets. This fall he returned to
the Point-as Brig. Gen. Frederick Augus-
tus Gorden, the first black officer ever to
command the cadet corps. As commandant
of cadets, Gorden, 47, holds one of the most
significant posts in the Army: he is chiefly
responsible for the military instruction
and student life of thousands of future mili-
tary leaders. The symbolic significance
hardly needs discussion. "All he has to do is
stand there" to make a point with talented
black prospects, says Maj. Richard Sutton,
director of the Point's equal admissions
office. Gorden, one of five three-star gener-
als in the Army who are black, is "walking,
talking" proof that blacks can succeed in
the military, Sutton says.
More than 28 percent of the Army's sol-
diers are black, but only 9.3 percent of its
officers are. To adjust that balance, more
blacks will have to be attracted to West
Point's 4,479-cadet corps, which is now 8
percent black, 3.9 percent Hispanic and
about 11 percent female. Academy offi-
cials, who have mounted a vigorous recruit-
ment effort, would like to see the percent-
age of black cadets equal their 12 percent
representation in the general population.
Attrition is also a concern.
While the rigors of West Point
work cause a 20 percent drop-
out rate for a typical class, attri-
tion among blacks, although
only a few percentage points
higher, has a much more dra-
matic effect. As Gorden himself
recalls, "Two of us [blacks]
started at the academy in 1958
and only I graduated. That was
a 50 percent attrition rate."
Hierarchical hassles: The ad-
ministration blames shaky aca-
demic preparation and the
Point's hierarchical social sys-
tem for much of the black at-
trition. Academy recruitment
officers and Gorden, while in-
sisting that racial problems are
rare, maintain a large equal-
opportunity office both to ap-
peal to prospective minority ca-
dets and to counsel the ones
they have. Officials who deny
the existence of racial tension Command

Walking, talking proof: Gorden at his post
are also quick to add that the penalties for
racism are severe, including possible ex-
pulsion. "I don't think anyone would dare
say anything even if they were racist," said
Cadet Bennie Webb, who is black.
As commandant, Gorden functions as a
cross between dean of students and troop
commander, guiding cadets' military and
extracurricular activities. It is another
stride in a military career that has already
seen Gorden direct Department of Defense
activities in Central and South America,
earn the Bronze Star for hetoism in Viet-
nam and win the Defense Distinguished

Service Medal for meritorious achieve-
ment in noncombat posts.
Gorden grew up in what he describes as
an integrated Michigan suburb, where he
was raised by his aunt and his uncle, a
factory worker, and he chose West Point at
the urging of his congressman. Although
Gorden claims to have suffered little dis-
crimination at the Point, he-and the oth-
er three blacks in the whole corps at the
time-spent a lot of hours together both in
and out of class. Gorden met his wife, an
"Army brat," on a blind date at the cadet
theater. After graduation, Gorden volun-
teered for duty in Vietnam and after his
return was selected to attend the National
War College. He has two daughters, 18 and
23, but allows that neither seems to be
interested in a military career.
Gorden credits the Army with being
more concerned with minorities than
many other institutions. "I doubt anything
ever moves as quickly as you would like it
to, but I have been promoted well ahead of
people who have the same experience and
service," Gorden says. Black cadets say
they take heart from his appointment.
While overt racism is rare, misunderstand-
ings do crop up, and the overriding political
inclination of cadets is conservative. His
classmates, according to Cadet Webb,
couldn't understand why he objected to the
appointment of Robert Bork to the Su-
preme Court. "This is the most conserva-
tive place I've ever been," Webb declares.
Stars and Bars: Still, he credits cadets with
far more sensitivity than their counter-
parts at some other colleges. At a West
Point basketball game against the Citadel,
a South Carolina military school that has
been rocked by racial tensions, a group of
visiting Citadel students waved a large
Stars and Bars in the stands. "I
found it offensive. They found
it a symbol of pride," says
Webb. "I'm from the South,
and I never took a lot of
pride in it." What was more
telling, however, was that a
group of white West Point ca-
dets ran into the stands, at one
point, grabbed the flag and
threw it away.
According to affirmative-ac-
tion officer Sutton, West Point
is trying to minimize hostilities
before they occur. A seminar
on contemporary issues has
evolved into a group rap about
social tensions inside and out-
side the academy. "I'm not na-
E ive enough to say there isn't
any racism going on," says Sut-
ton. Like many officers, howev-
er, he expects Gorden's com-
mand will make brotherhood
A--U.S. ARMY easier to teach.

ing presence: With alumni leader Michael D


ROSE ARCE in West Point


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