After racial slurs were scrawled outside black students' doors at the U.S. Air Force Academy's preparatory school, Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria gathered all 4,000 cadets in a hall Thursday so they could hear one message: Treat people with dignity and respect — or get out.
"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," Silveria said, in a speech that has found an enthusiastic reception after it was recorded and published online. "You should be outraged not only as an airman, but as a human being."
Speaking to a crowd of some 5,500 people that included faculty, coaches, airstrip personnel and senior officers and staff of the 10th Air Base Wing that includes the academy, Silveria urged them not to let their institution be taken away from them.
"The appropriate response for horrible language and horrible ideas — the appropriate response is a better idea," Silveria said. "So that's why I'm here. That's why all these people are here."
Both the academy and the Air Force amplified Silveria's message through videos and tweets drawing on his speech.
The academy is investigating an incident involving the N-word from earlier this week, when, as local newspaper The Gazette reports, "five black students woke up Tuesday to find 'Go Home' followed by the epithet scrawled on message boards outside their rooms."
The Gazette, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., south of the school's base, adds, "Sources at the academy said there appeared to be a single vandal involved, judging by the handwriting."
While acknowledging that the academy isn't a perfect institution, Silveria said it would be naive not to speak about racism — and that it would be tone-deaf not to do so in the current climate in America, including racist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., and elsewhere.
The Air Force Academy draws people from all races, the superintendent said, and from all walks of life, all parts of the country, all genders and upbringings.
"The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful," Silveria said. "That's a much better idea than small thinking and horrible ideas."
Toward the end of his address, Silveria said:
"Just in case you're unclear on where I stand on this topic, 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 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."
Those in the room listened in silence. To make sure his message was received and taken away, Silveria told cadets and others present to get out their phones and record it. Citing the need for the group to have moral courage and protect their institution's values, he then repeated his message: "If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out."