Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent Opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Frida Ghitis says the finding that an Air Force Academy prep school incident was a hoax doesn't invalidate the message of Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria's viral anti-racism speech
Americans on the far right could hardly contain their excitement, judging by their effusive comments on social media. A widely publicized incident, which appeared to have been a hate crime, turned out to have been a hoax. It was time to celebrate for extremists, and for others who have joined President Donald Trump in claiming that anyone whose message they dislike is a purveyor of “fake news.”
The incident in question occurred in late October at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, when someone wrote ugly graffiti outside the dorm room of black cadets in the Academy’s prep school, scrawling messages including, “Go home N–.” In response, the head of the Academy, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, summoned everyone there for a stirring speech, a defense of tolerance and civility that quickly went viral. “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect,” he told them, “then get out.” The speech has garnered well over a million views – and for good reason. It is a passionate defense of America’s true values. Everyone should watch it.
That remains absolutely true even after the school revealed this week that the offensive graffiti was written by an African-American cadet, one of the students it was supposed to have targeted. “The individual admitted responsibility,” has “received administrative punishment” and is no longer attending the preparatory school, according to the Academy.
In the porous logic of prejudice, hoaxes are leveraged to undermine any and all claims of racist attacks.
I was one of the people who wrote about Gen. Silveria’s speech and, not surprisingly, I was called upon to “retract” my article by a number of people on social media. But I find little, if anything, to retract in what I wrote. The news definitely demands updating the story. But I still believe the most powerful lesson from what occurred remains unchanged:
Silveria’s speech went viral because Americans are yearning to hear a message of inclusion and tolerance from their leaders. That is true no matter what caused the general to call an all-hands meeting that day at the Air Force Academy.
And it’s no secret why there’s such a hunger for principled, enlightened leadership. The reason is that the election of President Donald Trump lifted the rock under which much of the hatred had hidden, allowing it to squirm out into the light.
Trump was elected after campaigning in a fashion that shocked much of the nation. Undoubtedly, many who voted for him did it for reasons that have nothing to do with prejudice, perhaps hoping for lower cost health insurance or better jobs. But it’s just as clear that Trump sounded the dog whistle of racism, inspiring white supremacists who openly praise him and acknowledge they are “energized,” by his words.
From his feverish campaign rallies where he talked about Mexican “rapists,” to his sexist remarks, to his reaction to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville – an event staged to look like a Nazi event in Germany, complete with torches and chants of “blood and soil,” (translated from the original German) and “Jews will not replace us” – Trump has given new oxygen to divisiveness and prejudice. After Charlottesville, Trump found it necessary to blame both sides and claim there were “very fine people,” among the bigoted protesters, one of whom deliberately drove his car into the crowd, killing a young woman. The FBI is investigating the attack as an “act of domestic terrorism.”
Regardless of who wrote the racist messages at the Air Force Academy, Gen. Silveria’s message remains as valid today as it ever was. He exhorted everyone to treat people of all genders and races with dignity and respect and urged them to take on those who promote bigotry and intolerance, calling for “civil discourse,” and explaining that “we come from all walks of life … from all races … all backgrounds … all upbringings,” and that diversity and tolerance are not only a core American value, a core human value, but also one of America’s greatest sources of strength.
The call resonated because it reflects what the vast majority of Americans believe. We saw it this week in the latest round of elections that proved a resounding defeat for Trump’s brand of politics. Most Americans see Trump as a divisive leader, as a many polls show, and judging by the latest election results, they don’t like it.
In Virginia, the Republican candidate for governor, Ed Gillespie, tried to follow Trump’s script, aiming to stoke fear of immigrants. His rival, Ralph Northam, cast himself as a unifier, and won by a margin that surprised almost everyone. And that was just one of the races.
Across the country, bigots lost. The man who called himself “Virginia’s chief homophobe,” who wrote an anti-transgender “bathroom bill,” lost the seat he had held for 13 terms to Danica Roem, who became Virginia’s first openly transgender elected official.
The New Jersey politician who taunted women on the day of the Women’s March with a Facebook post saying they should get home in time to cook dinner was defeated by a woman fired up by anger at the sexist joke.
The backlash against prejudice was predictable, but so was the upsurge in hate crimes. Statistics show a sharp rise in hate crimes since Trump’s election, targeting African-Americans, LGBTQ people, Jews, Muslims, and others. The experts say hoaxes make up a minuscule amount of the cases. In fact, the vast majority of hate crimes are never reported.
Far right groups like to dismiss all such accusations, brandishing the hoaxes as evidence that any person or organization with which they disagree lacks credibility. But there was no false reporting on the Air Force Academy case. Graffiti was found, a speech was given, and when the perpetrator was discovered it was reported. Gen. Silveria says his speech is as valid and necessary today as it was six weeks ago. He’s absolutely right.
Racists may rejoice in the discovery of a hoax. The rest of us can rejoice in seeing the message of tolerance and civility winning the battle of ideas.