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Pressure builds on Coast Guard Academy to address racism concerns

A Democratic congressman from Mississippi who recently met with members of the NAACP in New London to discuss concerns of racial discrimination at the Coast Guard Academy is urging U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, to do the same.

In a letter to the Connecticut lawmakers dated May 25, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat representing Mississippi’s 2nd congressional district, said "it would be beneficial to hear firsthand from your constituents about their concerns and discuss ways to address them."

Thompson, ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, which has oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, including the Coast Guard, said in a recent phone interview that his interest in the Coast Guard is “fairly longstanding.” He has pushed for congressional appointments to the academy, like the other service academies have, as a way to increase geographic diversity among the corps of cadets. He and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat representing Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, also pushed for a report on the “shortcomings” of the Coast Guard’s Civil Rights directorate, which showed it was understaffed and lacked strategic direction.

“Over the time, complaints have increased in spite of what’s been done,” Thompson said, adding that he’s received complaints about discrimination at the academy from cadets and outside organizations like the NAACP.

Jean Jordan, president of the New London NAACP, and Tamara Lanier, first vice president, said Friday that they reached out to Thompson’s office about scheduling a meeting after a delay in scheduling a meeting with Connecticut lawmakers about these issues, and out of concern for cadets at the academy. Lanier said the New London NAACP has received complaints of hate crimes, intimidation, bigotry and bias, both from cadets and members of the Coast Guard, both past and present. She said she’s noticed an uptick in complaints in the last three years or so.

In early May, Jordan, Lanier and New London NAACP member Toi Willson traveled to Washington to meet with Thompson. Derrick Johnson, national president of the NAACP, also was present.

Thompson and the NAACP members discussed the lack of diversity at the academy, a "climate of discrimination" there and the Equity Scorecard process that the academy went through, which looks at metrics such as graduation and retention rates, who receives accommodations and recommendations and who is brought up on charges disaggregated by race and gender. The report that came out of the process found that black cadets had lower academic performance and graduate rates than their peers, and were more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts.

“It pretty much validated some of the inequity going on,” Thompson said in his interview with The Day. The question now, he said, is: What will the Coast Guard do with the data? “Is there a will to fix it?” he said.

Jordan and Lanier said after several months, they still have not been able to set up a meeting with the Connecticut lawmakers about these issues.

Blumenthal said by phone Friday that he, Murphy and Courtney have wanted to schedule a meeting with local NAACP members, and while it has been difficult to coordinate their schedules so all three can meet at the same time, they are "determined to make it happen" in the next couple of weeks.

"This issue is deeply serious and concerning. There have been a number of issues raised regarding lack of diversity and a climate of discrimination at the Coast Guard Academy, so I think a meeting is long overdue," Blumenthal said.

Following a story in The Day in September 2017, in which a group of minority cadets described discrimination as a systemic problem at the academy, Courtney, Blumenthal and Murphy wrote a joint letter to Superintendent Rear Adm. James Rendon calling for a prompt response to the matter and offering to help, if needed.

Rendon's response pointed to efforts by academy officials that have led to the most diverse corps of cadets in the academy's history. The academy’s Class of 2018 included 18 black cadets, the largest number of black graduates in the institution’s history.

"I want to emphasize in the strongest possible way that we seriously examine reports of discrimination and as a military institution, we have formal venues for reporting and accountability," Rendon said in his September 2017 letter to the Connecticut lawmakers. Processes, available for academy staff and faculty to address these issues, include oversight from people outside the academy "to ensure these issues are handled fairly and equitably," he said.

In late October, after a report that two white male cadets might have intimidated a black cadet based on his race, Rendon called for an academywide meeting and said that the school “will not tolerate racist behavior of any kind.” There was an investigation into the incident, and a Coast Guard investigator recommended that the two cadets be disciplined for harassing their black classmate.

Courtney said he visited the academy shortly after receiving Rendon’s response in September to meet privately with cadets who shared their “unvarnished input” about issues at the academy without academy leadership in the room.

“There’s clearly a need for change,” he said.

He called the New London NAACP “a partner in terms of trying to change what’s happening there,” and said he’d be more than willing to meet with them. The day after the academy released the report that came out of the Equity Scorecard process in early April, one of Courtney’s staffers shared the report with the NAACP, he said. He added that his office will push the academy to act on the report and ensure it doesn’t sit on a shelf and “collect dust.”

Murphy said in a statement, “The reports of discrimination and harassment at the Coast Guard Academy continue to be troubling. These are outstanding men and women who decided to serve our country. They should never feel unsafe or discriminated at the Academy. We absolutely need more accountability. I’ve been in contact with the Coast Guard Academy leadership and community leaders at the NAACP, and I’ll continue to work with them.”

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Toi Willson's name.


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