Though the slurs were discovered at the prep school, “it would be naïve” to think the episode did not reflect on the academy and the Air Force as a whole, General Silveria said.
“Some of you may think that that happened down at the prep school and doesn’t apply to us,” he said. “I would be naïve, and we would all be naïve, to think that everything is perfect here.”
He then explicitly linked the discovery of the slurs to events like the demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacists marched with torches in August, and Ferguson, Mo., where the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a police officer in 2014 set off protests across the country. He said that these events formed a backdrop that had to be addressed, and that to think otherwise would be “tone deaf.”
After calling for a civil discourse, he spoke of the power of various forms of diversity, evoking “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.”
He added: “This is our institution and no one can take away our values. No one can write on a board and question our values.”
General Silveria grew up in an Air Force family and graduated from the academy in 1985. It was announced in May that he would return to become superintendent, and in his first address to cadets, in August, he said that his defining values were “respect and dignity.”
Toward the end of his remarks on Thursday, he referenced those values again, exhorting cadets to take out their phones and film his words so that they could remember, share and discuss them.
“If you can’t treat someone from another gender with dignity and respect, then you need to get out,” he said. “If you demean someone in any way, you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another race, or different color skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
The Air Force Academy has struggled to address different forms of discrimination in the past. In 2014, a Pentagon report found that sexual assault and harassment were widespread at the three military academies and that, of the 70 reported incidents in the 2012-2013 school year, almost two-thirds took place at the Air Force Academy. There were 32 reports of sexual assault at the school in the 2015-2016 school year, the Pentagon said, down from 49 the previous year.
The academy has also come under fire for religious intolerance and insensitivity. A 2005 Pentagon report found that there was a “perception of religious bias” on campus as well as examples of improper proselytizing from both cadets and officers at the school.