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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, November 09, 2017 1:00 am

Academy finds racist messages were hoax

Alleged target admits he was one who wrote slurs

SAMANTHA SCHMIDT | Washington Post

In late September, five black cadet candidates found racial slurs scrawled on message boards on their doors at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

One candidate found the words “go home n---” written outside his room, his mother posted on social media, according to the Air Force Times.

The racist messages that roiled the academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, prompted the school to launch an investigation. They led its superintendent to deliver a stern speech that decried the “horrible language” and drew national attention for its eloquence.

Surrounded by 1,500 members of the school's staff, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria told cadets to take out their phones and videotape the speech, “so you can use it ... so that we all have the moral courage together.

“If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect,” Silveria said, “then get out.”

The speech, which the academy posted on YouTube, went viral. It was watched nearly 1.2 million times, grabbed headlines nationwide, and was commended by the likes of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

But on Tuesday, the school made a jolting announcement: The person responsible for the racist messages, the academy said, was, in fact, one of the cadet candidates who reported being targeted by them.

“The individual admitted responsibility and this was validated by the investigation,” academy spokesman Lt. Col. Allen Herritage said in a statement to The Associated Press, adding: “Racism has no place at the academy, in any shape or form.”

The cadet candidate accused of crafting the messages was not identified, but the Colorado Springs Gazette reported the individual is no longer enrolled at the school.

Sources also told the newspaper that the cadet candidate “committed the act in a bizarre bid to get out of trouble he faced at the school for other misconduct,” the newspaper reported.

The announcement thrust the Air Force Academy Preparatory School onto a growing list of recent “hate crime hoaxes” – instances in which acts of racism or anti-Semitism were later found to be committed by someone in the targeted minority group.

It's unclear exactly what prompts people to commit these hoaxes, stunts and false reports. But such revelations have become a major concern for civil rights activists who document racist and anti-Semitic incidents, particularly amid a rise in reported hate crimes since the 2016 election.

“There aren't many people claiming fake hate crimes, but when they do, they make massive headlines,” Ryan Lenz, senior investigative writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project, told ProPublica.

All it takes is one false report, Lenz said, “to undermine the legitimacy of other hate crimes.”

These reports have also energized many right-wing commentators and President Donald Trump supporters, who argue that reports about hate speech and racist graffitti are often fake accounts that are disseminated by liberal media.

Despite the string of frauds, experts on hate crimes say that false accounts are still relatively rare.

Brian Levin, director for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, told Talking Points Memo that hoaxes do appear in hate crime reports, just as they do in reports of other criminal offenses. But these fakes are a “tiny fraction” of the hundreds of hate crimes reported to law enforcement every year.

“These hoaxes have become symbols for some who want to promote the idea that most hate crimes are hoaxes,” Levin said. “That's important to rectify.”