Weeks into this event, the alleged facts are now well-known: On Dec. 16, two St. John Fisher College students, John Boedicker and Charles Milks, left a downtown bar and, as they walked past the statue of Frederick Douglass at the corner of Alexander and Tracy streets, decided it needed to come down.
They wrenched it from its base and began to carry it off until police arrived and charged them with criminal mischief, a misdemeanor. In their written descriptions of their motives, Boedicker and Milks each claim they simply were “drunk” enough to destroy public property, and “ignorant” enough not to know who the statue represented. But whether intended or not, our actions always take place within past histories, as well as within debates happening in the present. It’s our role as educators—and we’ve been faculty members at Fisher for a decade—to make such claims of ignorance impossible.
Boedicker and Milks could have been aware that we are living in an era of reckoning with our racist national history. This reckoning is taking place in part through a reconsideration of the symbols, signs, statues and monuments that represent our beliefs and values about racial equality.
In 2015, the white supremacist Dylann Roof targeted a black church in Charleston, S.C., and murdered nine parishioners—an event that prompted political leaders such as Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, to remove confederate flags and monuments from government buildings. Most recently, James Alex Fields was found guilty of killing Heather Heyer while participating in the 2017 Unite the Right Rally. The purpose of that white supremacist rally was to oppose plans to remove a confederate statue on the University of Virginia campus.
We would hope that our Fisher students understand some of the questions these events raise: Is a statue always more than art? What is the relationship between a statue and a community’s evolving beliefs, values, and principles? They could have known that pulling down any statue, at this historic moment, would never be viewed simply as drunken shenanigans.
Closer to home, Boedicker and Milks could have known that Rochester was engaging with statues in ways different from but related to what was happening across the south. Instead of removing monuments to a racist past, we were commissioning statues to commemorate our city’s abolitionist history, one that coalesces in the worthy avatar of Frederick Douglass. Mayor Lovely Warren and County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo declared 2018 “The Year of Frederick Douglass,” using the 200-year history of his birth to not only elevate awareness of Douglass’ legacy, but reaffirm our region’s historic commitment to antiracism, education reform and voting rights work.
The Re-Energizing the Legacy of Frederick Douglass Project, and its collaboration with sculptor Olivia Kim, positioned 13 statues of Douglass at key historical sites around the city to educate and imprint Douglass’ impact on the city. Last spring, on the St. John Fisher campus, the College of Arts and Sciences amplified Rochester’s bicentennial efforts to celebrate Douglass with programming—teach-ins, visiting speakers like Ibram X. Kendi, campus-wide readings-in-common, and more. And even when it is not Douglass’ bicentennial, those of us who teach in the college’s liberal arts core are committed to the learning goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Boedicker and Milks somehow missed all this happening right on our campus. That these Fisher students understood neither the national discussion around racist civic symbols nor the image, importance, and local celebration of a giant in the abolitionist movement is our failure, as well as theirs.
While their claim of ignorance hits us hard as educators, we are also taking note of the second feature of their apology: They were stunned by the accusation of racism that followed reports of the statue’s theft. John Boedicker wrote: “I am the opposite of racist and I really hope people know that.” Milks stated the same.
We will take these young men at their word; that is, that they do not engage in the behaviors associated with overt, unapologetic racists—using discriminatory language, treating individuals in their social environments as lessors because they are non-white, or actively working against racial equity and inclusion in the communities they belong to. However, it is our job as educators to help our students recognize that being civil to all, regardless of racial group membership, is not “the opposite of racist.” We know that it is an indication of their racially privileged position that two white college students can easily remain ignorant of struggles over racist memorials and unaware of one of Rochester’s most important champions of human rights and dignity.
Boedicker and Milks’ surprise that they would be perceived as racist reminds us that we must be diligent and intentional about persistently removing our students’ blinders to the structured racist system we inhabit. They hope that we will not identify them as individually racist; but their perceived racism arises because their ignorance and criminal action was enabled by the privileges afforded to young white men in a racism-formed society.
We must ask them—and all of our students—to understand that the challenges experienced by, for example, young black men in the city of Rochester are also not a result of individual failures, but instead are enabled by historical and currently racist structures.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
We believe that our students, even those who tear down statues of Frederick Douglass, generally believe this statement. To help our students become the “opposite of racist,” then, we must help them to know that young people who were born black in the city of Rochester have the same innate capabilities, desire, and work ethic that Boedicker and Milks once demonstrated as college student athletes.
To think otherwise is objectively racist. To actively reject racism then, students who believe in a network of mutuality must ask what policies and structures, such as deep segregation and the concentration and racialization of poverty in our community, are causing young people who were born black in Rochester to be underrepresented at Fisher at all levels. To be “the opposite of racist” means knowing that you are obligated to extend and use your privilege to knit “a single garment of destiny” for all. It is our responsibility as educators to teach this.
Jill Swiencicki and Ginny Maier are faculty members at St. John Fisher College.