Air Force Academy’s Association of Graduates apologizes for insensitive comment that angered Chinese-Americans

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[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments by “Checkpoints” Senior Editor Jeff Holmquist.]

The Air Force Academy Association of Graduates and one of its class correspondents have apologized for offending Chinese-American alumni, students, faculty, staff and parents.

In an off-hand remark that appeared in the June issue of “Checkpoints,” a quarterly magazine produced by the Association of Graduates, an independent nonprofit, a class correspondent mentioned the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the Air Force community.

At the end of his report on the activities of 1977 academy grads, John Lou Michels Jr., the class correspondent, addressed the coronavirus lockdown.

“We are living in interesting times, which may or may not be a Chinese curse, but under the circumstances certainly seems appropriate,” he wrote.

That one sentence immediately raised eyebrows among many of the academy graduates who read it.

It also infuriated 14 Chinese-American families comprising Air Force Academy graduates, faculty members, staff, cadets and parents of soon-to-be basic cadets in the incoming Class of 2024. The families, who felt the comment blamed people of Chinese heritage for the pandemic, contacted Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose work on religious discrimination and extensive contacts in the Air Force community sometimes get him involved in discrimination against ethnic minorities and the LGBQT community.

Weinstein is a decades-long friend of Michels, who previously served on MRFF’s advisory board for a dozen years. Weinstein called his former classmate June 18 to discuss the gaffe. Afterward, Michels offered an immediate apology.

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In an email to Weinstein that same evening, he wrote: “I greatly appreciate your taking the time to speak with me this evening about this situation. I’ve gone back and re-read the paragraph in question and understand your clients’ perspective and frustration at my negligent language. I apologize to your clients and to anyone else whom I offended by my inarticulateness and very poor choice of words. Please convey that to them.”

The Association of Graduates offered its own apology in the June 18 weekly online newsletter for graduates “7258′ ″ (the altitude, in feet, of the academy).

“It’s come to our attention that a Class News item in the June 2020 Checkpoints references ‘a Chinese curse’ in discussing the current pandemic,” it reads. “We regret that our team didn’t catch the offensive term in editing. We apologize.”

Weinstein said the Chinese families accepted the apologies, but were disappointed and angered that one wasn’t forthcoming from Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, the superintendent of the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But “Checkpoints” Senior Editor Jeff Holmquist emphasized in an email that the Association of Graduates is an independent nonprofit and “is not connected to the Air Force Academy institution in any way.” He believes any criticism of Silveria is therefore unfair and unwarranted.

“Gen. Silveria really has no reason to apologize for anything that is printed inside the magazine,” Holmquist said. “He has no control over the content or the editing of it.

“Ultimately, it is my responsibility to edit the magazine contents,” he said. “It is solely my error that I let the insensitive comment slip by me. For that I apologize.”

Multiple media outlets have been reporting an increase in hate speech directed at Chinese-Americans because of the pandemic. The New York Times, for example, reported in March that Chinese Americans say they have been yelled at, spit on, threatened and attacked by people blaming them for the pandemic, and that they increasingly fear for their safety.

Weinstein called the incident “a teachable moment”:

“In my opinion, Lou doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, and I have never heard a racist word uttered from his lips.

“Nevertheless, on behalf of MRFF’s 14 Chinese-American client families who comprise USAF Academy graduates, faculty members, staff, and cadets as well as parents of soon-to-be basic cadets in the incoming Class of 2024, I share their opinion that the words Lou unfortunately used in his recent column in the USAF Academy Association of Graduates Checkpoints graduate magazine (June 2020 edition) were indeed racist,” he continued. “This error in judgment does NOT brand Lou as a ‘racist,’ rather it makes him a person who made a serious mistake for which he has already sincerely apologized and from which he has learned. …

“MRFF and its clients in this matter accept Lou’s formal apology, and the accompanying apology of the USAF Academy Association of Graduates. MRFF and its clients await a similar apology from the USAF Academy itself,” he concluded.

In an interview, Weinstein said the situation was beginning to settle down, but President Donald Trump’s speech at a political rally in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday “ripped the scab off the wound.” In that speech, the president referred to COVID-19 as the “kung flu” and the “Chinese virus.” A number of civil liberties groups have called such speech racist and warned that it is leading to threats against Chinese-Americans.

The incident comes on the heels of another, more serious racial incident involving a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association Board of Trustees, which garnered national attention.

That member resigned from his position after an accidental Facebook Live video broadcast him and his wife making racist comments and using racial slurs while talking about the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Air Force is just beginning a comprehensive review of a comprehensive review of racial equality, opportunities and injustice in the service. In the initial phase, it is focused on Black airmen, but will be expanded to include members of other races in the future, according to Air Force officials.

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