After black cadets were targeted with racial slurs, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria took a bold stand.
U.S. Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria has responded to an incident of racial harassment on campus with a powerful message.
Days after news reports surfaced about five black cadets being targeted with racial slurs on dorm room message boards, Silveria delivered a speech to roughly 5,500 cadets, airmen, and academy staff. He set out to make it clear that what happened was unacceptable and, in the process, demonstrated how leaders should address acts of hate aimed at marginalized groups.
In his five-minute speech, Silveria highlighted diversity as a source of power and strength within the academy and urged cadets to uphold its values.
Race relations in the U.S. aren't exactly in a great place right now, and too often, bigotry is going unchecked. Racism isn't an issue we can afford to ignore, even if it means having some very uncomfortable conversations.
"You should be outraged not only as an airman, but as a human being." All GIFs from KOAA5/YouTube.
"We would be naive to think that we shouldn’t discuss this topic," Silveria told the crowd. "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."
"This is our institution and no one can take away our values."
"We come from all walks of life," he said, "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."
It's in closing that Silveria made his most powerful point, asking the cadets in the room to pull out their phones so they could capture it on video.
"Just in case you're unclear on where I stand on this topic," he went on (emphasis added), "I'm going to leave you 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 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 different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out."
We still have a long way to go. This is just a start.
To be sure, there were plenty of valid criticisms of the speech. Jason Johnson at The Root criticized Silveria for "removing a 'problem' as opposed to eradicating it," and pointing to a number of fairly recent incidents that suggest the military doesn't have a handle on equality quite yet.
"It’s akin to finding out there is a serial rapist on campus and saying, 'This campus has no place for rapists, they must go!'" wrote Johnson. "Thanks, but maybe you should prosecute them too?"
With those points in mind, it's on all of us to push back on bigotry, discrimination, and marginalization in society. It's on all of us to help make the world a more just place for people of all backgrounds to live, work, and thrive.