This week, five African-American students at Air Force Academy Prep School in Colorado found the words “Niggers go home” scrawled on the dry-erase boards outside their dorm rooms.
Once the Air Force Academy, which runs the school, became aware of the racial graffiti, the academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, rattled off a statement to the press:
I’ve said it before, the area of dignity and respect is my red line. Let me be clear: it won’t be crossed without significant repercussions. Diversity is a strength of our academy and our Air Force. We are stronger when we take into account the views of those with different backgrounds and life experiences.
The students are part of a 10-month program to help them acclimate to life at the Air Force Academy, so, in a twisted sort of way, this is part of their training. While their parents have expressed concern and an investigation has been launched, none of that will change one basic fact: The U.S. military has a long, sordid, racist and violent history when it comes to the treatment of black soldiers. While this may be the first, this certainly won’t be the last, or worst, racial treatment these young people will receive should they choose to serve in the U.S. military.
For his part, Silveria followed up by dragging the entire academy into an assembly to inform the attendees of what had happened at the prep school and to make it clear that the behavior was not acceptable.
He contextualized the attack on the future cadets with the events of Charlottesville, Va., and Ferguson, Mo., and even the NFL protests against racial injustice. He repeated, for the entire class and the cameras, “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
As responses go—given that Silveria has just seen evidence that there are people at the institution who want to dehumanize and terrorize fellow or future cadets—“You need to get out” is a pretty weak response. It’s a call for removing a “problem” as opposed to eradicating it. It’s akin to finding out there’s a serial rapist on campus and saying, “This campus has no place for rapists; they must go!” Thanks, but maybe you should prosecute them, too?
I’ve been in and around the military my entire life. I have immediate family who have served in and retired from multiple branches, and I have close friends who are deployed overseas.
When I was a kid, A Soldier’s Story and The Lords of Discipline, movies about the grotesque violence and racism faced by men of color integrating the armed forces, were regularly in my family’s VCR. I remember seeing white soldiers smirking or simply refusing to salute my father as we walked around the base on which I grew up.
I’ve gotten late-night phone calls from friends deployed overseas asking for advice on how to deal with racialized and sexual violence from fellow soldiers. I’ve heard the sick racial-hazing stories from campus ROTC programs.
In other words, compared with the scale of racial dreck these young people of the Air Force Academy Prep School are likely to face if they choose a career in the military, Silveria’s generalized admonishment will leave them woefully unprepared.
Conservatives of all colors like to point to the military as one of the most integrated and racially harmonious parts of American society, which is fine if you’re talking about the Salvation Army or GI Joe. The actual military? Not so much.
Black soldiers, whether in training or veterans, have been routinely targeted throughout American history for a special kind of violence as white supremacy quivers at the notion of black people being armed, trained and capable of arming themselves.
That’s why black veterans were consistently denied the benefits of the GI Bill that built the American middle class. That’s why the lynching of black soldiers has been so common throughout U.S. history. That’s why Richard Collins III, a recently commissioned officer two weeks from graduating college this spring, was killed by a white nationalist while the current U.S. president barely said a peep.
That’s why, despite African-American women making up more than 40 percent of all women in the armed forces, it wasn’t until 2014 that President Barack Obama was able to change racially biased hair standards for active-duty women of color.
That’s why a group of West Point cadets showing racial and American pride caused a firestorm last year.
These are just examples of how the American military to this day treats people of color, and it continues to do a number on white Americans, too.
As far back as 2008, military analysts were warning that white nationalist groups were trying to enlist members of the military for free, tax-funded training for a coming “race war.” White nationalist groups regularly recruit from the military, and many branches have done an inadequate job of expelling members who advocate violence against black people.
Dillon Ulysses Hopper, leader of the Vanguard America white nationalist group that was part of the Charlottesville terrorist attack, was a recruiter for the Marine Corps until just a few months before the march in Virginia, despite openly calling for violence against nonwhite people.
Current and former members of the military are regularly part of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, and the U.S. Department of Defense has done a lousy job, intentionally or otherwise, in rooting them out.
The issue isn’t simply that a bunch of bigots wrote threatening words on the dorms of five cadet candidates; that’s almost to be expected. The issue is that the military, despite the rhetoric, has not adequately rooted out racist sentiments in the ranks, yet still expects (and in fact depends on) large numbers of African Americans to join up and serve, even if that means facing an enemy on the field—or in your barracks.
These kids are expected to go right back to work knowing full well that whoever wrote those messages may never be found or could be plotting something more serious. That’s what’s expected of black people in the military.
During a week when conservatives have chastised black athletes as not showing proper respect for the flag representing the United States and the soldiers who fight for our freedom, it’s fitting that one of our most prestigious military institutions provides us with a stark reminder.
America, and the military that protects it, has generally failed to provide the support, respect, opportunity and safety for black people that it has for white people.
That lack of respect for our blood and sacrifice, or the future blood and sacrifice of cadets at the Air Force Academy, is much worse than any disrespect allegedly coming from taking a knee.