Bankole: General’s response to race issue hits home

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Steve Spreitzer, the president and CEO of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity, says what a leader who stands against hate and racism looks like is best exemplified in the powerful comments delivered recently by Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, the superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The general’s forceful remarks — using the racially charged events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Ferguson, Missouri, as moral lessons — about the need for more diversity and his total denunciation of racism came as a direct response to racial slurs that targeted some black students at the academy’s prep school and became an internet sensation.

“His remarks are a strong start for his racial justice journey and a powerful message for folks who look like me. The unfinished story is the work that remains to address the factors that led the person at the Air Force Academy to act in such a hateful way,” Spreitzer said.

“We also recognize that people are dying due to unexamined racism and the entrenched white supremacist systems which aren’t dismantled by pounding our chests and call for courage and sacrifice, not to mention daily contact with those suffering from racism.”

Silveria on Sept. 28 told the 4,000 students on the campus that the academy will not tolerate racism or an anti-diversity climate.

“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. You should be outraged not only as an airman but as a human being,” Silveria said.

He said “the appropriate response for horrible language and horrible ideas, the appropriate response is a better idea.”

Then came a line about the power of diversity that read like an introduction to a document about why diversity is inextricably tied to our destiny as a nation.

“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. That we come from all backgrounds, gender, all makeup. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful,” Silveria said.

Without mincing words and sounding like a drill master, Silveria gave the students an ultimatum.

“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 women, 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.”

Spreitzer, said the lesson Silveria is sending to the rest of the country is to “be bold, call people to their better selves and demand zero-tolerance for hate.”

Activist Brenda Rosenberg, whose Hate2Hope program works to build bridges, found Silveria’s comments equally refreshing.

It is critical to hear from leaders of their outrage of any and all hate speech, she said. “But what is even more important is for our leaders to take action against hate speech. Gen. Silveria provided an opportunity to have civil discourse. ...The message I took away for us in Metro Detroit is that there is power in diversity.”

“What if we use the tension,” she added, “and use our diversity to respond to challenging behavior? What if we stepped into the fault line created by hateful racial slurs and use the tension to engage not ban the detractors?”

The moral crisis we find ourselves in today evidenced by the expressions of hate and bigotry all around us did not just start this year or the year before. It has been part of this nation’s long running experience since its founding.

But the kind of courageous leadership demonstrated by Silveria to tackle hate is the perfect antidote needed to counter ideas that only seek to keep us from progressing.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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