Air Force Academy Leader Responds To Racial Slurs On Campus

Sep 29, 2017
Originally published on September 30, 2017 9:24 am
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Five black cadet candidates at the Air Force Academy Prep School in Colorado were targeted this week. Someone wrote racist messages on the small dry-erase boards outside their dorm rooms. They said go home and used the N-word.

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JAY SILVERIA: If you're outraged by those words, then you're in the right place.

MCEVERS: That's Lieutenant General Jay Silveria. He's the superintendent of the academy talking to cadets, cadet candidates, faculty and staff.

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SILVERIA: We have an opportunity here, 5,500 people in this room, to think about what we are as an institution. No one can write on a board and question our values.

MCEVERS: Silveria said people listening should be outraged as airmen and as human beings.

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SILVERIA: 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 a different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.

MCEVERS: We are joined now by Tom Roeder. He's senior military editor at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, and he covers the Air Force Academy. Welcome to the show.

TOM ROEDER: Thank you.

MCEVERS: What did you think when you heard this speech?

ROEDER: This was the most straightforward speech we've had at the Air Force Academy in years. This is a school that has been through many scandals over time over issues like sexual assault and religious respect.

MCEVERS: Right.

ROEDER: Race is a fairly new one, but we've never had a commander come out and just give something this bold-faced - get out.

MCEVERS: And we should say that racial slurs, of course, while they're horrible in any place, are illegal in the military. Has anything like this happened before at the Air Force Academy or at the prep school?

ROEDER: We have not seen issues quite like this one at the prep school. We did have an incident several years ago where slurs were used. Those cadets were kicked out immediately. And we've seen it across the military where they respond very strongly to this. Racial harmony is a big deal in the military because they see themselves as the people who really brought this to America. They integrated the force in 1948, and they're pretty proud of that.

MCEVERS: Yeah. You mentioned this before, but the academy has been criticized for other issues dealing with discrimination. You've reported on an internal investigation about the way the school handles sexual assault. Did the school address that issue in a similarly public way?

ROEDER: We really haven't seen in recent years the academy dealing with things in a public manner like this. They really like to handle their discipline in-house and talk about it later. One incident just a few years ago involved many members of the football team getting kicked out for misconduct that included wild drinking parties and sexual assault. That was actually covered up for years. Now we have something which is in real time. Almost same day we have the get out message.

MCEVERS: So what's going on? Why do you think he made this speech if it is such an unprecedented one?

ROEDER: Jay Silveria comes in with a fairly unique background. He is a fighter pilot who's very experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. His last posting was running the air war against Islamic State terror group. He sees things as a commander as opposed to a manager of a college.

MCEVERS: So he's a newcomer, and he's shaking things up.

ROEDER: He is - commanders, rather than forming committees and solving problems through a collaborative process per se, tend to deal with things in the form of an order. And that's what we saw Jay Silveria do. Talking to him after the speech, one of the things that he emphasized is in a unit as large as the Air Force Academy, bad things are going to happen. The role of the commander, he said, is to make sure that they only happen once.

MCEVERS: What happens next? I mean, what else is the academy doing in response to this racist incident?

ROEDER: Behind the scenes what we've seen are a bunch of cadets being pulled into rooms by the offices of Special Investigations and Security Forces. They really want to get to the bottom of who did this rather quickly. And I think they'll be pretty public about it if and when they catch somebody.

MCEVERS: Tom Roeder with The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs, thank you so much.

ROEDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.