Union forum addresses racial injustice

Publication Date

For more than a week, protesters have marched in the streets in dozens of U.S. cities to voice their anger and frustration with systemic racism, police brutality and social inequality.

Most of the protests have been peaceful, though some have been marred by looting and violence. Though these issues have percolated for decades, the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, was the last straw. The image of the police officer forcing his knee into the handcuffed Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he took his last breath is seared into the nation’s conscience.

The incident also triggered a tsunami of public conversations, many uncomfortable, about the perilous state of race relations in America.

Rally at Union Square at 6pm on April 29, 2015, on the North Side of the Square (on 17th street) to demonstrate solidarity with the people of Baltimore.

Rally at Union Square at 6pm on April 29, 2015, on the North Side of the Square (on 17th street) to demonstrate solidarity with the people of Baltimore.

On Thursday night, the College joined the conversation by hosting a virtual forum to examine incidents of racial injustice and explore ways the Union community can respond and learn from what is taking place.

For 90 minutes, the 10 panelists representing students, faculty, staff and the Schenectady community engaged in a conversation and shared personal stories that at times were raw, powerful, emotional and brutally honest.

The forum also included pointed questions from some of the 600 people who tuned in, ranging from what the College can do to better support students of color on campus to the lack of diversity in the Schenectady Police Department.

“We learn and grow when we engage constructively with people who share our perspectives - and with those who may not,” President David R. Harris said at the start. “The idea is that we do not seek to offend, but we acknowledge that risking offending is important if real learning is to occur.”

He announced that in the coming days, he will share information on a new Presidential Initiative on Race that will bring together faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of Union to “better understand and affect race and privilege in America and, importantly, at Union.”

The forum opened with a series of slides highlighting responses from the audience on their reaction to recent events. Some common themes emerged. Anger. Sadness. Shame. Heartbreak.

The discussion then shifted to the panelists, who reflected on their own experiences.

Gretchel Hathaway, dean of Diversity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer, became emotional as she described the video’s impact on her.

“I wailed, I yelled at the television,” said Hathaway. “The anger I felt as a mother that this could happen to someone’s son, father, brother, cousin; the inequities in this country just hit me. I will not apologize for my tears, and I will not apologize for my anger.”

Others, including moderator Fran’Cee Brown-McClure, vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students, said they refused to watch the graphic video.

“It scares me to know that I am raising a child in a world where she is going to be judged first and foremost on the skin she did not have a choice to be born into,” Brown-McClure said. “It scares me to think when I send my daughter out with her father to do something simple like getting ice cream, my child may be traumatized for the rest of her life because of an interaction her father might have with law enforcement.”

Eric Clifford '94, the police chief of Schenectady, said recent events reminded him of his time as a student and the conversations about race after other high-profile racial incidents.

“I can’t believe more than 25 years later, we are still talking about this topic,” he said.

When hundreds of protesters appeared at his police station earlier in the week, they asked Clifford to kneel with them. As he did, officers around him followed suit. He said his department, which has a troubled history with its community dating back decades, has instituted a series of reforms to improve relations, including with the campus. However, he acknowledged more could be done, particularly in building a diverse staff.

William Garcia, professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies, said change is needed or incidents like Floyd’s death will persist.

“I dread the moment when one of those incidents will be a nephew, a student or someone that I know,” he said. “As I told my students, I selfishly feel happy that I’m not raising a child in this country at this moment.”

The confluence of COVID-19 and the civil unrest has been particularly challenging for seniors like Richard Boakye '20, a mechanical engineering major.

“Finishing the last weeks as an undergrad before we step into the world, we’ve had to fight to make sure we can even live in such a world,” he said.

In forceful and measured tones, Boakye shared his anguish and anger over recent events that have roiled the country.

“People reached out to ask me if I’m fine,” he said. “I’ll be fine when America is fine. But that would be me putting my hope and trust in a system that didn’t care if black people years ago were fine, if black people today were fine, and probably won’t care if my kids are fine. I’ll continue to put my trust in God alone.”

As the discussion wound down, Brown-McClure pointed out that one of the biggest challenges confronting campus is the idea of privilege that allows others to ignore issues like racial injustice.

“We have the privilege of stepping away and saying, well, that’s not us,” she said. “We don’t have these issues. After tonight, I hope we recognize now that we do. These experiences are not just in Minneapolis or Atlanta. They are happening on our campus. There is some work to do on this campus. Change will not get here overnight. But what are you going to do about it?”

Other panelists included Katherine Lynes, associate professor of English; Matt Milless, assistant dean of students; Sarah Vanesse '21, biology major; and Jared Zeidman, associate head coach for women's basketball.

To read the community responses submitted in conjunction with the forum, visit the Constructive Engagement web page.