Although the American Constitution begins with the words “We the People,” and the Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created equal,” our history has largely contradicted those ideals. Indeed, today’s level of economic inequality is greater than it has ever been since the Great Depression, according to Pew Research Center. Although significant progress has occurred over the last century, recent developments highlight the degree to which we are moving backward as much as we are moving forward.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the rollback on civil rights. In its 2012 Shelby County decision, the Supreme Court declared the preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be unconstitutional, removing federal oversight from state election laws. In this decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the conditions that precipitated this section of the Voting Rights Act no longer existed, and that there was no need for enforcement provisions guaranteeing “one person, one vote” in several southern states. Within six months of his decision, North Carolina led a series of southern states in passing measures designed to eliminate minority voting rights, such as enacting voter ID laws. Since racial minorities disproportionately lack possession of acceptable government ID, it is a matter of concern that 320,000 North Carolinians would be incapable of voting due to the new voter ID law.
Duke University has its own history of racial discrimination that we need to confront. The wealth that created this institution came in no small measure from the poverty wages paid to black tobacco workers during the era of Jim Crow. When the black historian John Hope Franklin came to Duke to do research on his Harvard doctoral dissertation in 1941, he could use the archives but not the restrooms or dining halls on campus. Only in 1964 did Duke open its doors to black students, and they were few in number.
The tide finally started to turn in 1968. Although few of today’s Duke students know of this event, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, forty students marched to the president’s house to demand that he resign his membership in a segregated white country club; that Duke pay its service employees, mostly black, a minimum wage; that a Black Studies department be created; and that Duke workers have the right to unionize. By that night, 2,500 Duke students occupied the West Campus quad. They stayed there for four days and four nights until the university administration announced that it would concede to their demands. The next year—because only two of the demands had been met—black students occupied Allen Building, insisting on creation of a Black Studies program.
Over time, more change began to occur. In 2000, black students made up 11 percent of the student body, and non-whites 35 percent. Today, the incoming class is 50 percent non-white. More black faculty have been hired. In light of the changes that have occurred, some students, faculty, and administrators have come to believe that racism is a thing of the past at Duke, just as Justice Roberts said it was a thing of the past in voting rights.
But we know that is not true. In Durham, black drivers are pulled over by police many times more often than white drivers. Last spring, a young black woman walking through campus reported that racial slurs had been hurled at her. A student hung a noose from the Bryan Center walkway. A sign advertising a speech by a leader of “Black Lives Matter” was defaced with racist slogans.
Clearly, the overwhelming majority of Duke students abhor racists acts and discrimination. Duke has changed. But why do we not acknowledge our past and try to learn from it? Imagine what might happen to our consciousness if half a day of first year orientation each year were devoted to discussing the centrality of race and racism to American history and to Duke’s past. Similarly, does it not make sense for Duke to have an official policy that prohibits racial hate crimes and imposes punishment on those who commit such acts? We acknowledge that Duke administrators “genuinely care” about racial justice. But a policy of “caring” must be backed up with a commitment to pursue, to investigate and to hold accountable those who do not “care,” not just dismiss their statements as “misinformed.” We support calls for the university to be more pro-active and less re-active, to take a stand, not just “care.”
William Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor emeritus of History, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and President of the Organization of American Historians.
Robert Korstad is a Professor of Public Policy and History and a Bass Society of Fellow.