A Milton High School student allegedly created a social media post with violent and racial overtones that circulated online last week. While a police investigation is ongoing, school district officials and a racial justice advocate are also grappling with how best to handle the incident.
The Janesville Police Department was still looking into the matter earlier this week because the student is believed to have created it in Janesville. The investigation was ongoing Wednesday.
While Milton School District officials confirmed a Milton High School student created the meme, they were unable to comment on disciplinary action that might be taken.
The district’s Communications and Safety Coordinator Kari Klebba reiterated in an email Wednesday that “the meme is abhorrent and is not consistent with our district’s policies.
“This incident has created a teachable moment, certainly. Discussions continue.”
The post, which circulated on social media including Snapchat, included two images that made a racially charged comparison.
The top photo shows a Milton High School football player, who appears to be white, standing next to a Janesville Parker High School football player, who appears to be Black, laying facedown on the field. The photo was taken at a Sept. 17 football game at Milton High School.
The second photo, appearing below the first, is a historical drawing of a white man whipping a prone, naked Black man. The combined images include a caption, which appears to be the original description of the illustration: “Slave begs for mercy after Master beats Viciously (1860 colorized).”
According to the Milton School District, the football players in the top photo were not involved in the creation or distribution of the meme and didn’t consent to their images being used that way.
The father of the Parker player told WMTV in Madison that the teen who created the meme has been a friend of his son’s since they were both very young.
“He’s hurt about it and about who did it,” the father told the Madison TV station.
He added that the meme maker’s mother called to apologize, and her son expressed remorse on Snapchat, too.
Janesville police Lt. Josh Norem said Thursday that the matter is still under investigation but he hoped to have a resolution soon.
Amiee Leavy, racial justice director at YWCA Rock County, said her first reaction upon seeing the meme was disappointment.
“It unfortunately speaks to ignorance of the horrors of chattel slavery,” she said, referring to the meme juxtaposing a snapshot from a football game with a depiction of an act of brutality by a white owner of an African slave.
Chattel slavery was the ownership of human beings and their offspring as property, forced to work without pay, a practice that persisted for centuries in North America until the late 19th century.
Leavy, who previously worked as a multicultural outreach specialist in the Janesville and Beloit school districts, said she understands that the local football players pictured didn’t agree to be part of the meme.
“That is just an extra layer of violation—using someone else’s image to connect such a violent and brutal historic reference,” she said.
Leavy said the problem isn’t just that one person created this particular meme. The person responsible is neither the first nor likely to be the last to make dismissive and insensitive references to enslavement.
It is incumbent upon parents and school officials to educate young people about racism and inequality as a path to reducing both in the community.
“We’re all in this together to make sure that our students, as well as all of our community members, are informed and educated about racial and social justice,” she said.
Leavy said YWCA Rock County offers programs that educate participants about the history of slavery and racism. In one called Courageous Conversations, participants discuss race and current events.
“YWCA Rock County does offer, for a fee, racial justice training for any organization, school district,” she said. “We can tailor it to meet the needs of those organizations.”
She said such training is intended to “invoke some empathy and understanding” and prevent “repeated incidents like this.”
Leavy encourages people to educate themselves to improve race relations in the community. There are online resources and books she said she recommends. One book about chattel slavery is “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist.
“It’s a tough read,” Leavy said, adding, “I had to stop and start reading this book several times.”
The YWCA recently released its Race to Equity report. The report contains information about health, education, juvenile justice, criminal justice and the racial disparities in all of these areas. Leavy said the report is great guide for both community organizations and schools to look at.
A statement released last week by the Milton School District “encourages anyone in our community who needs support to please reach out to our student services team members, guidance counselors or social workers for assistance.”