The Naval Academy yesterday announced it will change its application for sponsors, Annapolis-area residents who host midshipmen in their homes, after complaints from the local chapter of the NAACP that it encouraged racial division.
No longer will the online form ask potential sponsors to state racial and religious preferences they have for the midshipmen who come to them for home-cooked food, a ride to the mall or a couch to crash on. Sponsors can still opt for a midshipman of a particular gender or for one involved in a particular activity.
Sponsors will still be able to decline sharing their own race and religion.
"The issue that had been raised obviously had caused some concern," said Cmdr. Ed Austin, an academy spokesman.
In a July 24 letter addressed to the Naval Academy superintendent, the president of the Anne Arundel County branch of the NAACP asked the school to "abandon" the part of the application asking sponsors to state their racial preferences for midshipmen.
"We believe that this policy promotes division and serves to polarize a community," wrote Gerald Stansbury.
Carl Snowden, an NAACP member and Annapolis civil rights activist, commended the military school for taking the group's request seriously.
"It's called democracy at its best," he said. "I would certainly applaud them ... I think it's the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason." He had previously said that the academy, as a government-funded institution, should not require people to state what their racial preference is for sponsored midshipmen. He said the application form should make answering the question optional.
The application was removed from the Naval Academy Web site last month after the annual deadline passed.
The sponsor program, which has existed for 30 years, is designed to provide "a home away from home" for midshipmen, particularly for freshmen going through the arduous plebe year where they have little free time or access to media privileges.
Several sponsors said they did not see a problem with the question itself, since they often allow the families to welcome a midshipman of their same religion so they can attend church together, or of a particular gender who could be a role model for their male or female children.
Some sponsors who are minorities state that they prefer to have a minority midshipman assigned to them as a way to support them and create an environment that resembles home.
"I do not believe the program in any way is intended to discriminate against any plebes of any race or religion," said Theodore Wolff, an Annapolis sponsor, in an e-mail to The Sun. "As a matter of fact, the plebes are the ones who decide which host family they would feel the most comfortable with on the weekends and, possibly, holidays if their own parents are too far away."
Bill Zingler, also an Annapolis resident, said he was thrilled this year to find out he was sponsoring a midshipman from Micronesia, one of the first from that country to attend the academy.
"I really didn't think anything about the question about race," he said. "This is going to be an interesting, very different cultural experience. He's from a country with a population of 20,000, so already, being in Annapolis, there are more people here than there are in his entire country."
An Annapolis man who asked not to be identified said he requested a male midshipman because he was uncomfortable with women's role in the military and initially opted not to host a female midshipman. But next year, he is considering requesting a female midshipman because he has a young email@example.com