Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria had had enough.
The U.S. Air Force Academy had struggled for years with a reputation as a haven for narrow-minded views and intolerance of diversity when Defense Secretary James Mattis named Silveria — an ’85 alum and a pilot of F-15s, HH-60s, and F-35s — as the school’s new top general in May. But this week, news broke that five black cadet candidates at the Air Force Academy’s in-house prep-school were targeted by a hate crime: Someone in their cohort entered their rooms and scrawled on their whiteboards: “Go home n****r.”
Silveria, coming off a deployment as the second in command of the air war in Afghanistan, quickly put out a statement reminding cadets and the public that “there is absolutely no place in our Air Force for racism.”
But he was just getting started.
The superintendent announced an all-hands meeting Sep. 28 with… well, all hands: the academy staff and faculty, the air wing of 4,000 cadets, the prep-school candidates. And when the mass assembled, Silveria lit into them in a five-minute speech that’s gone viral for its passion, its clarity, and its message: “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, you need to get out.”
Here is excerpted text of Silveria’s fiery appeal, a sort of St. Crispin’s Day speech for unit cohesion and, well, just plain humanity in the year 2017:
You may have heard that some people down at 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. And that’s why I’m here….
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…
What we should have is a civil discourse and talk about these issues. That’s a better idea…
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 country. That we come from all all races, we come from all 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…
We have an opportunity here, 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 different color skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
The investigation into who scrawled the dirtbag dime-store race hate on students’ walls is ongoing. The father of one of those students told Air Force Times that “My son is not a victim, I don’t view him as a victim.” The real victim, he said, “is that individual [who wrote the slurs], because that individual is going to lose a promising career in the military.
“That individual is going to go home disgraced,” he added. “[They are] the real victim, because they were raised with that kind of vitriol and that kind of hate.”