“Go home n—-r.” That was left on the message boards outside the rooms of five African American cadets at the Air Force Academy’s prep school outside of Colorado Springs on Thursday. Think of it as September’s version of the “Jews will not replace us” chants last month in Charlottesville.
Bigotry connects the two incidents, but that’s where the similarities end. The tiki-torch-bearing racists in Charlottesville marched through the streets proudly without hoods. Their neo-Nazi and white supremacist compatriots did the same the next day. The Air Force Academy scribbler did so under the cover of anonymity. Courageous enough to scrawl hate but not brave enough to do so when everyone could see him or her. The biggest difference is in the response of leadership.
The president of the United States used the horror of Charlottesville to blame “both sides” in the violence that led to the killing of Heather Heyer by a car that James Alex Fields alleged to have used to plow into a crowd of counterprotesters. President Trump went so far as to say that there were “very fine people” among the bigots on parade in the town Thomas Jefferson called home. By doing so, the one person this nation looks to for moral authority and leadership in times of crisis shamelessly ceded it.
Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria did naturally what Trump is incapable of doing. The Air Force Academy superintendent answered the hate in his ranks immediately, head-on and with a moral clarity nonexistent in the Oval Office.
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.
Rather than remain silent or agnostic on the impact of our present-day racial flashpoints, Silveria gives them life by calling them out and acknowledging that the pain caused by them or elucidated by them must be aired, discussed and taken seriously. Not exploited.
No one can write on a board and question our values.
Silveria goes on to articulate what those values are. But the sentiment behind those words is like water on a parched field. Welcome and overdue. Not that it is his responsibility to address the racial demons unleashed by the president (of all people). The very fact that Silveria is being lauded for his powerful defense of those values really is a statement about the dereliction of duty by the commander in chief to be a reflection of our better selves. Silveria called on the students and faculty to respond to hate with a “better idea.” A campus discussion about Charlottesville was one of them. Then he added his own.
I also have a better idea, and it’s about our diversity, and it’s the power of 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.
After a presidential campaign powered by division and a presidency adept at driving wedges and pushing racial buttons, it is a relief to hear the values of this nation defended. That they were extolled by a fellow American who puts his life on the line in uniform makes Silveria’s words all the more stirring. But not as stirring as blunt admonition to those who do not share the values of the Air Force and the values of our nation:
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 another man or woman, 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.
I recognize Silveria has the power to say these things because use of racial slurs in the military “is the kind of conduct that can be court-martialed,” according to a report in the Colorado Springs Gazette. Yet, his demand for dignity and respect are words we all should live by and up to. Open racism and bigotry should not be tolerated. They tear at our fragile union and make the grand experiment that is America that much more difficult to succeed. Such hate should go neither unremarked nor unchecked. And if the president of the United States is constitutionally incapable of (daresay, unwilling to) emulate the moral leadership shown by military men he so admires perhaps he should get out. Or in the words of his fellow travelers, “Go home.”
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