The nation, especially our commander-in-chief, just got a lesson on how to talk about race and racism, especially when it comes to written racial slurs directed at African-American students.
You face the public immediately and directly. You don’t play politics.
You don’t say there were many fine people on both sides.
Heaven forbid, you don’t comment on diction or grammar.
You simply confront the situation head on with the outrage expected of the moral leader of our country and you show the path for everyone to follow.
You share your vision of what’s right, and pave the way for anyone within earshot.
And then when you finish, you tell anyone who can’t understand, won’t understand or simply doesn’t believe in your vision to “get out.”
Racism has no place in our society. Laws don’t assure it. Only a quick condemnation of bad actors, and public displays of a real commitment to equality and diversity make a difference.
And that’s what a leader does.
It’s not what Trump did immediately after Charlottesville, nor after other racially charged incidents since he took office.
But it’s what U.S. Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria did when he was confronted with a poisonous, racially charged situation.
Silveria addressed more than 4,000 assembled cadets and staff about how cadets were posting racial slurs on message boards, specifically targeting five African-American students at the U.S. Air Force Academy Prep School this week.
“That kind of behavior has no place at the prep school, no place at USAFA, and no place in the United States Air Force,” Silveria said.
Yes, it was the Air Force’s high school. But these are the students who are fast-tracked into the main academy, and then into the service as the future leaders of the Air Force.
“We’d all be naïve to think that everything is perfect here,” Silveria said. And then he broadened the scope of his words to include the rest of society. “We’d also be tone deaf not to think about the backdrop of what’s going on in country. Things like Charlottesville and Ferguson, the protests at the NFL.”
Then he delivered the punch.
“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out,” said Silveria. “If you can’t treat someone of another gender, whether it’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.”
It’s not hard. It’s a simple, direct, moral directive.
He then made the cadets all take out their cell phones to video his words. So they can play it over again. But you can see Silveria’s whole speech on this video.
If you have a problem reacting or dealing with a slur that has marred your institution, let Silveria’s example serve as your model response, and your inspiration.
It’s a de facto code of diversity that leaves no doubts about the modern American society we’re all trying to create.
We all know now that any talk of some “post-racial” society was pure hype. The drum against racism must continue to beat. That fight, unfortunately, is never ending.
But in Silveria’s speech, delivered as a firm but authoritative reprimand in a military setting, we have a readymade lesson for the civilian world today.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the civil rights group, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund http://www.aaldef.org/blog
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