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Millennial Response To Pence’s West Point Speech

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During his speech at West Point, Vice President Pence didn’t mirror the brash, impulsive rhetoric employed by his boss; instead, he seemed to invoke a kinder, more compassionate form of conservatism that members of my generation may associate with George W. Bush.

It would be litotes to say that the Trump administration has not had a smooth start when it has come to confronting and speaking about issues tied to racial relations in America.

Earlier this month, President Trump was criticized for delivering a speech in honor of Black History Month in which he spoke about the African-American community, as well as key historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, in cold, detached, instrumental terms.

Trump has also been criticized by civil rights activists and organizations for nominating Jeff Sessions to the position of Attorney General. Sessions, who most recently served as a U.S. Senator from Alabama, was denied a federal judgeship by the Senate only thirty years ago for alleged displays of racism and prejudice while serving as a prosecutor and later as state attorney general in Alabama.

According to reports from Thomas Figures, an assistant U.S. attorney who has worked with Sessions, Sessions referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as “un-American” on more than one occasion, frequently referred to African-American colleagues as “boy,” and often made jokes about supporting the Ku Klux Klan.

Most recently, though, Trump has come under fire for signing three executive orders on the 9th of February that grants great amounts of unchecked power to law enforcement agencies in order to “restore safety in America.”

However, on February 9th, Vice President Mike Pence demonstrated that the Trump administration is willing to continue to learn and engage with marginalized communities when he delivered a riveting speech that tied the struggle for civil rights in America to the value of serving in the military.

Pence, accompanied by his wife, Karen Pence, and U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), only the second African-American Republican to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction, travelled to the United States Military Academy, known colloquially as West Point, to deliver a speech at the Henry O. Flipper Dinner, an annual event held in honor of a former slave who went on to graduate from West Point and earn a commission as 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

During his speech at West Point, Vice President Pence didn’t mirror the brash, impulsive rhetoric employed by his boss; instead, he seemed to invoke a kinder, more compassionate form of conservatism that members of my generation may associate with George W. Bush.

After opening his speech by sharing anecdotes about his family’s ties to the United States Armed Forces and calling to mind feelings of patriotism, duty, and leadership, Pence tied his love of country to his respect for Henry Flipper, a man who “overcame extraordinary adversity…  [and] demonstrated leadership, self-discipline, and courage in service to this country.”

Pence began this portion of his speech by familiarizing his audience with the story of Flipper, who, after living through the “horrible evil of slavery,” requested an appointment to West Point before making history as the first African-American to graduate from the institution. Though, as Pence noted, he “was ejected from the Army only four years later after being accused of a crime he did not commit,” his legacy of bravery and determination carries on today.

Pence continued his speech by outlining the contributions of other notable African-American figures who have served the nation in the military. Evoking images of George Washington crossing the Delaware, Pence spoke about men of color who gave their life for the nation during the American Revolution, such as Crispus Attucks, an African-American merchant widely considered to be the first person to die in the American Revolution, and Lemuel Haynes, a black pastor who fought at Lexington and Concord.

He honored “the nearly 200,000 African Americans who fought for the Union in the Civil War and for the new birth of freedom that followed it.” He celebrated the legacy of General Benjamin O. Davis and all other Tuskegee Airmen who “flew for freedom in World War II.” Before celebrating the accomplishments of figures who were present at the dinner such as Major Pat Locke, the first African-American woman to graduate from West Point, and Cadet Christian Nattiel, who had recently been named as a Rhodes Scholar, Pence celebrated the lives of African-American servicemen and servicewomen who have perished in their fights to defend American values of liberty and justice: “Their names and their sacrifices will never be forgotten.  For they understood the promise of America — the timeless ideals that bind us together as a people and give us purpose as a nation.”

Despite that many of our politicians would seemingly like us to believe, racial tension in this nation is as prevalent as ever. This is a reality that my generation has been forced to recognize, address, and fight against. In 2015 alone, about 100 unarmed black people were killed by law enforcement officers across the country. Though African-Americans make up only 2% of the nation’s population, roughly 15% of all people killed by law enforcement officers in America are black. We have not only seen these incidents of systemic racism occur; more often than not, we have seen these incidents excused.

After New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man, by placing him in a prohibited chokehold during an arrest in July 2014, a Richmond County grand jury decided not to indict him, sparking protests across the nation. After white Missouri police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who had been attempting to run away after robbing a convenience store, in August 2014, a St. Louis County grand jury similarly decided not to indict him. After Timothy Loehmann, a 26-year-old white police officer, killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black child, when he saw Rice playing with an Airsoft gun at a recreation center in November 2014, a grand jury decided once again not to press charges.

These events and others like them, many of which have been recorded and shown over and over again on 24-hour news channels for the world to see, have filled my generation with a strong desire to confront injustice that exists within the very societal structures that are supposed to protect us. We have grown up in a world in which the phrase “all men are created equal” has often appeared to be little more than an empty platitude chanted by those who prefer to live in the past than address the problems of the present.

Pence’s willingness to speak frankly about the contributions of African-Americans to our nation’s rich history, even if he was unwilling to connect the struggles of African-Americans in the past to current struggles for liberation for people of color, was, above all, pleasantly surprising. Though almost all politicians have been reluctant to speak about race relations in the United States in public, most Republican officials have been virtually silent about race as a whole.

Considering the fact that 89% of the Republican electorate identifies as non-Hispanic white, it is unsurprising that many conservative politicians don’t feel as though they have an obligation to speak about systemic discrimination and racial inequality.

Compared to President Trump’s Black History Month speech, in which he stated that that Frederick Douglass, the renowned orator and abolitionist who died in 1895, was “somebody who’s done an amazing job” and whose work is “being recognized more and more,” Vice President Pence’s speech was absolutely spectacular.

Even in its own right, though, Pence’s ode to African-American servicemen of past and present who have defied the odds and confronted racism in order to fight for principles of liberty and justice was socially aware, thematically relevant, and unexpectedly powerful.

Though he avoided appealing to any one particular ideology, Pence was successfully able to frame principles of equality and liberation within a larger picture that encompassed the Trump administration’s foreign policy goals.

Though he didn’t comment on the arguably divisive nature of some of President Trump’s past comments, Pence was able to, over the course of twenty minutes, foster a feeling of unity and solidarity amongst people who, despite gender, race, or political affiliation, were, above all, proud to be Americans. Though he didn’t explicitly apologize for the administration’s previous blunders in its attempts to deal with a racially divided nation, Pence, through his speech, demonstrated a desire to turn a new leaf and to move forward as one in order to confront the obstacles that prevent us from truly carrying out our Founding Fathers’ vision of liberty and justice for all Americans.

Over the course of the past few years, my generation has been forced to accept the notion that our dreams for the world absent of the racial division that we have encountered throughout our lives would not be realized by any single politician or political party.

Many of us, especially after the lack of political reaction following the shocking deaths of unarmed black man and boys such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, have fallen into despair as we have realized that most politicians would prefer to stay silent about issues of race if speaking out meant risking their political standing.

When it was announced in the early hours of November 9th, 2016, that Donald Trump would become the next President of the United States, many young people were quick to believe that conversations about confronting racial division on the national level would be put on hold for the next four or eight years.

Following President Trump’s inauguration, following Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as Attorney General, following the signing of executive orders that strengthened the power of law enforcement without addresses problems such as implicit biases that exist on a structural level, this belief was widely reinforced.

When Vice President Pence arrived at West Point, many young people didn’t pay much notice, as we widely assumed that Pence’s speech to young cadets would focus primarily on the new administration’s goals for national security. As his speech progressed, and as he began to loudly and proudly celebrate the contributions of African-Americans throughout history to the global fight for freedom and democracy, my generation, for the first time since January 20th, felt as though our cries were finally being heard.

 

Read more: This Is What Vice President Mike Pence Said At West Point

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About the author

Jake Tibbetts

Jake Tibbetts

Jake Tibbetts is a Yale Young Global Scholar 2016. He is an avid political organizer in his community, serving as an organizer on multiple state legislative campaigns.