“You should be outraged”: A US Air Force general gives a lesson in leadership after racist slurs

“The appropriate response for horrible language and horrible ideas…is a better idea.”
“The appropriate response for horrible language and horrible ideas…is a better idea.”
Image: Reuters/Handout
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Racial slurs were posted on message boards on the doors of five black students at the US Air Force Academy’s preparatory school in Colorado Springs, Colorado earlier this week. In response, superintendent lieutenant general Jay Silveria gathered all the Air Force cadets yesterday and did not mince words.

“You should be outraged,” he said. “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out,” he said to the audience of 4,000 cadets and 1,500 faculty members and military personnel. Watch the full speech:

Silveria encouraged the cadets to embrace the power of their collective diversity and not let the values of their institution be taken away from them, saying the appropriate response to racism and horrible ideas is a better idea. Unless the US Air Force sets a strong example and starts difficult conversations, he cautioned, the institution would be lost.

A spokesman for the Academy said investigators are looking into the matter. Officials believe that a single culprit is responsible for the racist messages, judging by the handwriting, according to the Gazette. Silveria has received an outpouring of positive responses after video of his speech was posted online.

Colorado senator Michael Bennet released a statement following the speech, the Washington Post reports. “This hateful act stands contrary to everything that makes us strong as a nation,” Bennet said. “We are glad Academy leadership has made clear this will not be tolerated, and we’re grateful for the example set by their response.”

Read Jay Silveria’s full speech

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 US 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. Also, there’s so many people here, they’re lining the outsides along the windows. These are members of the faculty, coaching staff, AOC’s, AMT’s, from the airfield, from my staff, from my headquarters, all aspects of the 10th Airbase Wing, all aspects that make up USAFA and the United States 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, DC 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 at Charlottesville, but I also have a better idea and it’s about our diversity, and its 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 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, 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 going to 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 teach 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. OK, you don’t have to reach for your phones, I’m going to give you an opportunity to reach for your phones. I want you to videotape this so that you can have it, so that you can use it, 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. 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.