In 2002, when I was a sophomore at St. John Fisher College, I came home one Friday night from the bar heavily intoxicated. Showing off to my friends and new girlfriend, I set off a fire extinguisher in my dorm hallway. There was major damage. That moment of epic stupidity cost me not only my residency privileges at Fisher but over 200 hours of community service (time spent mainly washing dishes and making waffles in the dining hall).
I will always regret the way my actions caused so much harm to a college that I admire and benefited from. In retrospect I am eternally grateful that SJFC exercised mercy by not expelling me. As a result of their leniency, I went on to graduate with a B.A. in 2004, attain two master’s degrees, and work within several colleges and universities as an adjunct and community organizer. Who knows where my life would be today if I was simply kicked out under a heavy cloud of shame. Given a second chance, I not only salvaged an opportunity to earn a degree, I also learned several important lessons about making amends, the perils of heavy drinking, and the power of restorative justice.
Yet there is something about my experience that has always made me ask a very hard question: What if I was black? And what if I did not belong to the school’s heralded First Generation Scholarship program? What if I was not friends with the daughter of Fisher’s Chief of Security? Would I have been treated any differently if I was a student of color without favored status? It’s been 16 years since I made that mistake, but I still look back and wonder what role my white privilege played in keeping me from going to jail, paying a heavy fine, or getting expelled.
Needless to say, these questions were still fresh when I first heard about the two SJFC students accused of vandalizing a Frederick Douglass statue in downtown Rochester. One witness claims that the students were using racial slurs as they dismantled the statue and carried it down the street, a charge the young men adamantly deny.
In my estimation, the College’s response was both swift and severe. Both students have been suspended while the case is being reviewed, and the SJFC president condemned their actions in the strongest terms. Even Mayor Lovely Warren weighed in, stating: “The vandalism and theft of the Frederick Douglass statue on Tracy Street is a sad event that demonstrates remarkable disrespect for the citizens of Rochester, especially those who have worked so hard to celebrate the legacy of Douglass during the 200th anniversary of his birth.”
As with my own case, the fact that these two students are white matters, especially when viewed in the context of Fisher’s ongoing problem with diversity. According to College Factual, an organization that obtains their data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the National Center for Education Statistics, St. John Fisher’s faculty is 85.5% white. Just 5% of the faculty is African- American. 84% of the undergraduate student population is white. Only 3.8% of the students are African- American. Not surprisingly, the college is ranked 1,964 in ethnic diversity nationwide with a student body composition that is below the national average.
To claim that the school has no responsibility in this matter is not only unfair to the community that was targeted by this act of vandalism, it also forfeits an opportunity to challenge Fisher to be better at diversity training, hiring faculty of color, diversifying the curriculum, and being more transparent about race relations on campus. To my knowledge, no outside group has ever completed a full investigation into how many racial incidents occur on and off campus that involve Fisher students. Who is reporting these racial incidents and how are they being handled? Although I do not want to see their heads taken off- and I am certainly not one to cast stones- asking these difficult questions about SJFC is necessary.
Not surprisingly I have received push back for expressing these views in other forums. One commentator called my viewpoint illogical and motivated by a personal and political agenda. Another pundit went further, calling me “laughably self-righteous and a sanctimonious windbag.” That same person wrote: “Why is it that this incident can’t be as simple as it appears to be? Namely nothing more than a couple of cretins getting liquored up (as college students have been doing in this country since colonial days) and then going out and doing something REALLY stupid (as college students have also been doing in America since colonial days). Why must we make either a literal federal case out of it by trying to label the actions of these drunks a hate crime, or else blaming St. John Fisher because one dark night two of their students were too bombed to recognize the subject of their vandalism as a statue of Frederick Douglass”?
Fair enough. But I still believe SJFC has much more responsibility than these comments suggest. As Frederick Douglass once said, “those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
It’s time to start plowing up the ground. If someone truly believes that there is no institutional racism at Fisher, I want them to answer the following question: What if the students were not white football players? Imagine instead that they were two black students with corn-rolls and tattoos. Imagine that they were coming from a club in the 19th Ward rather than a bar on East Ave. Imagine that the two black students destroyed a statue of Susan B. Anthony instead of Frederick Douglass. Imagine that the two black students were using misogynistic language while they were doing it. Imagine that they were from Philadelphia or the Bronx rather than Upstate New York. If this were the case, would the students be expelled or suspended?