The real issue behind West Point cadets' raised fist

Cadets under scrutiny for raised fists photo
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Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: Some tie photo of West Point cadets with fists raised to Black Lives Matter
  • He says blacks who do something whites don't understand often are presumed guilty
  • Bailey: Not every gesture of a black person is aimed at skittish whites or to support thugs

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)I had only recently started my job as a newspaper columnist when a woman called my editor to complain.

We knew there'd be pushback: I was a young black guy delving into treacherous waters, writing about race relations in the South for a mostly conservative white audience -- and was replacing a retired, beloved older white man who was known for his lighthearted take on issues of the day. I was football to his golf.
    I was surprised, not by the complaint, but by the nature of it.
    "He's flashing a gang sign," the woman told my editor, in reference to a photo of me paired with my columns.
    Issac Bailey
    In the photo, I was wearing a pair of slightly nerdy, thin-framed rounded glasses, resting my chin in my left hand. I didn't smile, trying to look contemplative.
    Maybe she thought I was a member of the Bloods because the sweater I wore was red? Or maybe it was because she had never encountered someone like me in a columnist photo, and it was easier to fall back into the comfort of the unexamined stereotypes making their way through her brain.
    I suspect that's at the heart of complaints over a photo recently posted online of 16 African-American women, graduating cadets at West Point. Each of the women, in one of the academy's time-honored traditions, is dressed in her ceremonial uniform, posed on the steps of historic Nininger Hall.
    The controversy? Each has a raised fist.
    I look at the photo and see a group of young people celebrating an enormous accomplishment in solidarity with each other. It's a big deal to make it through the nation's premier military academy, particularly when there are so few people like you to share the journey. Other people though saw the photo and imagined they were pledging allegiance to cop killers.
    A blogger apparently popular with the military called it unprofessional and said it was in reference to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which he seems to believe is anti-police.
    In other words, he did to those women what that reader did to me: allowed himself to be led by the baseless assumptions rolling around his head and heart and turned it into a burden for young people who should be celebrated, given their accomplishments, instead of facing an investigation for supposedly violating a code against politicking while in uniform.
    That reader could have picked up the phone and asked me directly about my pose, and that blogger and others who assumed the worst about those cadets could have just ... asked them. But the truth is, when it comes to issues of race in this country, black people who do something white people don't understand -- and don't even try to understand -- are presumed guilty until proven innocent.
    It even goes beyond that in this case.
    The #BlackLivesMatter movement is not anti-police and is not in solidarity with cop killers, as some of the criticism aimed at the cadets suggest. It is a movement sprung up, in part, to protest and try to prevent the violence perpetrated against black people by too many cops with itching trigger fingers.
    That's not a knock on good cops; that's attempt to root out the bad ones while reforming a system that protects them.
    And that's true even though outlets such as Fox News have repeatedly referenced a "pigs in a blanket, fry 'em like bacon" chant attributed to a small group of people protesting under the #BlackLivesMatter banner last year in Minnesota.
    Those outlets and critics have, for instance, spent eight years defending the tea party against charges of racism despite the ugly signage at some large tea party rallies that was clearly racist, saying that a few fringe members don't represent the entire group. In their minds, a relatively few white people doing awful things should never be attributed to the entire group, while a relatively few black people saying something idiotic has to represent an entire movement.
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    That's why millions of people deemed Trayvon Martin a thug for the sin of wearing a hoodie, even though it was the man who killed and stalked him who had the criminal past. That's why they blamed 12-year-old Tamir Rice for his own death for carrying a toy gun in a state and country that reveres its guns, and why black women in the military had to fight until recently to be allowed to wear their hair naturally.
    Too often, white people's suspicions -- those based on nothing, and those based on exaggerated fears -- have been used to determine how black people should act, talk, walk and wear, and when and how.
    The critics of those cadets didn't stop to ask -- didn't even consider -- if it was their own assumptions that were baseless before burdening those cadets with the task of not only having to educate people who seem determined not to understand things that make them uncomfortable, but demanding change and apologies any way.
    A woman who reportedly said she mentors some of the cadets said the pose had nothing to do with #BlackLivesMatter and was simply an expression of their joint accomplishment.
    I believe her. Why? For the same reason I know I've never been in a gang.
    This may come as a shock to many, but not every gesture a black person makes is aimed at skittish white people or uplifting black thugs.
    Sometimes a pose is just a pose.