"If You Can't Treat Someone with Dignity and Respect, Then Get Out"

[Content Note: Racism.]

Earlier this week, five Black cadet candidates at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School found racial slurs on the message boards on the doors of their rooms. The incident became public after the mother of one of the cadet candidates posted a photo on Facebook, showing the words "Go home [anti-Black slur]" written on her son's message board. She wrote: "These young people are supposed to bond and protect each other and the country. Who would my son have to watch out for? The enemy or the enemy?"

School officials have launched an investigation into the racist harassment.

Yesterday, the superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, addressed cadets and telling them in no uncertain terms that such behavior was comprehensively unacceptable. At the end of a five-minute speech, he directed them to take out their phones and record him as he said: "If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out."

Ladies and gentlemen, you may have heard that some people down in the prep school wrote some racial slurs on some message boards. If you haven't heard that, I wanted you to hear it from me. If you're outraged by those words, then you're in the right place. That kind of behavior has no place at the prep school, it has no place at USAFA, and it has no place in the United States Air Force. You should be outraged not only as an airman, but as a human being.

And I'll tell you that the appropriate response for horrible language and horrible ideas — the appropriate response is a better idea. So that's why I'm here. That's why all these people are up here on the staff tower. So let me have everybody who's up here please pull forward to the rails. [gestures to encourage people to move forward, beside him] Also, there are so many people here, they're lining the outsides along the windows. [gestures around the perimeter of the room]

These are members of the faculty, coaching staff, AOCs, AMTs, from the airfield, from my staff, from my headquarters. All aspects of the 10th Air Base Wing; all aspects that make up USAFA and the United State Air Force Academy. Leadership is here: You heard from Brigadier General Goodwin; Brigadier General Armacost is here; Colonel Block from the athletic department is here; Mr. Knowlton is in Washington, D.C. right now. That's why they're here; that's why we're all here. Because we have a better idea.

Some of you may think that that happened down in the prep school and doesn't apply to us. I would be naive, and we would all be naive, to think that everything is perfect here. We would be naive to think that we shouldn't discuss this topic. We would also be tone deaf not to think about the backdrop of what's going on in our country — things like Charlottesville and Ferguson; the protests in the NFL. That's why we have a better idea.

One of those ideas: The dean brought people together to discuss Charlottesville. Because what we should have is a civil discourse and talk about these issues. That's a better idea. We received outstanding feedback from that session on Charlottesville.

But I also have a better idea, and it's about our diversity. And it's the power of the diversity, the power of the 4,000 of you, and all of the people that are on the staff tower and lining the glass, the power of us as a diverse group. The power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this county, that we come from all races, we come from all backgrounds, gender, all makeup, all upbringing. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful. That's a much better idea than small thinking and horrible ideas.

We have an opportunity here, the 5,500 people in this room, to think about what we are as an institution. This is our institution, and no one can take away our values. No one can write on a board and question our values. No one can take that away from us.

So just in case you're unclear on where I stand on this topic, I'm gonna leave you with my most important thought today: If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can't treat someone from another gender, whether that's a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can't treat someone from another race, or a different color skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.

Reach for your phones. I'm serious — reach for your phones. [pauses; looks around the room] Okay, you don't have to reach for your phones; I'm gonna give you an opportunity to reach for your phones. Grab your phones — I want you to videotape this so that you have it; so that you can use it. [pauses] So that we all have the moral courage together. All of us on the staff tower, lining the glass, all of us in this room. [pauses]

This is our institution. And if you need it, and you need my words, then you keep these words — and you use them, and you remember them, and you share them, and you talk about them: If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out.

[turns abruptly and walks away from the microphone]
I don't know if Black cadet candidates feel reassured by these words. I don't know if they'd agree that discussions about Charlottesville are effective. I don't know if they feel like the Air Force is their institution as much as it is their white peers'. And I wouldn't presume to know how they feel, or assume they all feel the same way, or forget that Lt. Gen. Silveria's words might not seem as powerful to them as they seem to many people who are sharing his address.

All I know for sure is that his words — even if they are insufficient; even if they are at best a starting point for urgent institutional change that must happen to ensure marginalized cadets' safety — are infinitely superior to anything the president has said.

Because Donald Trump has not merely failed to say something unequivocal about how white supremacy is incompatible with what the values of our nation and its institutions aspire to be, but has, at every opportunity, empowered bigotry.

And that is also part of the backdrop against which this racist harassment has happened at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School. It is the most important piece of that backdrop — and the one that Lt. Gen. Silveria could not explicitly mention, though its presence was felt in his every word all the same.

The Commander-in-Chief has empowered this divisive, hateful behavior. And I suspect that was at the very front of Lt. Gen. Silveria's mind as he recommended to those who can not muster dignity and respect for others that they get out.

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