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'Sounds Like Hate' podcast investigates racism at VMI

Several people in uniforms stand together
Numerous cadets from the Virginia Military Institute stand together at the inauguration of Gov. Glenn Youngkin in January. VMI was at the center of controversy over its Confederate statues and a state report that found the school had "an overall racist and sexist culture." (File photo: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

Season four of "Sounds Like Hate," a podcast produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, examines how white supremacy manifests in the United States today, including at the Virginia Military Institute. VMI, which is located in Lexington, was at the center of controversy when The Washington Post reported on several instances of racism at the public military institute.

VPM News reporter Patrick Larsen recently spoke with Jamila Paksima, co-executive producer and co-host of " Sounds Like Hate," to talk about their examination of VMI.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

VPM News: Season four of "Sounds Like Hate" examines the places in our culture where white supremacy manifests. In beginning work on this season, what made VMI's story an important example?

Jamila Paksima: What really caught our attention about this story was just how astounding it was, how much the worshiping of the Confederacy was happening in an academic setting in a state school. We have been tracking lots of stories of extremism in our country and how hard it is to actually teach the truth about our history. And VMI ended up having so many examples of places and opportunities of change and growth, that it intrigued us to take a look at — now that they're being called out really publicly about this — what are they going to do?

In reporting this story? You spoke with VMI students and alumni who experienced racism from peers and faculty. In this clip from the podcast, graduate Keniya Lee describes an experience she had in class with a professor.

Lee: She looked at me and she laughed. She said she wasn't sure if she should share the story or not, and then she went to tell the story. So, she started that she was from Ohio and her dad was a high-ranking member in the KKK.

Lee and other students attempted to address problems by engaging the school both publicly and privately. How would you say VMI responded?

When she tried to anonymously complain about this teacher, which was very difficult as the only Black person in this class, right. And when she went to do this complaint to the school, they said, “Well, you're a senior, and if you file a complaint, it's going to take a year. You're gonna have to stay here for another year.” So, they would just find excuses and ways to make it so difficult to actually file a complaint to really allow the students to be fully heard.

In the time since VMI’s public reckoning. Have we seen the beginnings of the cultural shift that the students you spoke with are calling for?

It's a school that has now a new leader, which is Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins. He is a VMI alum, he's African American, two-star general. He has a really enormous task ahead of him.

I mean, this is a school that has been called "a place where white men are meant to lead white men." He put in place a diversity and inclusion officer, which is the first one they've had at the school in its 183-year history. But even if you talk to the head of D&I, Dr. Love, she'll tell you, at minimum you need four years. Every single class has to be out of there. And some people say it might take 10 years, it might take more. I mean, it is a systemic culture that's embedded there.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.