In social media campaigns and in physical spaces on campus, some students are calling to change the way issues of race are recognized and addressed at Duke.
A number of posts have circulated widely on social media at Duke expressing frustration and demanding change after a racist chant was purportedly directed at a student last weekend. The alleged incident occurred after other events involving the denigration of or violence against students of color on several campuses across the country. On Thursday, President Richard Brodhead and Provost Sally Kornbluth sent an email to students encouraging improvement of the racial climate on campus. Student organizations looking to address racial issues on campus have also launched initiatives to bring about specific changes to the campus environment.
"History and precedent have shown us that instances of utter racial catastrophe happen here at Duke more often than we might like to imagine," sophomore Henry Washington, vice president of the Black Students Alliance, wrote in an email Tuesday.
Racism at Duke
Last weekend, reports emerged of degrading racist comments being directed in public toward a Duke student. A poster on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak alleged that drunken white male students had chanted a racist song at a black female Duke student. The song, which included degrading racial slurs, alluded to lynching. Earlier in the month, a video had emerged showing University of Oklahoma fraternity members singing the same derogatory song.
The administration is currently investigating the incident, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta wrote in an email Tuesday.
“We care very much when any of our students express concerns with safety or any aspect of their Duke experience,” Moneta wrote. “We'll certainly reach out and offer any and all support we can to help address these concerns.”
After the video at Oklahoma emerged, the fraternity chapter—Sigma Alpha Epsilon—faced national criticism. This led to the expulsion of several fraternity members involved and the chapter’s closure.
No evidence has emerged to suggest that Duke's SAE chapter was responsible for singing the chant during the incident at Duke.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
In a statement, Duke's SAE chapter—North Carolina Nu— condemned the incident at the University of Oklahoma as well as the incident at Duke.
"Our chapter was shocked and appalled when the news broke about the racist chant at Oklahoma University," the statement read. "Earlier this week, our chapter felt the same stomach-turning emotions when we heard that the hateful words from the OU video were repeated on our own campus."
Black student leaders at Duke contended that this series of events have highlighted racial tensions at Duke and around the country, regardless of which particular individuals or groups are responsible.
“The occurrence of such incidents makes it difficult to operate under any assumption of post-raciality,” Washington wrote. “We don’t make these things up.”
"Systematic exclusion and invisibilization"
On Wednesday evening, an anonymous group calling itself the "People of Color Caucus" posted a statement on the blogging site Tumblr not only highlighting the incident but also arguing that a number of groups on campus are subject to "systematic exclusion and invisibilization." The statement went on to call for a change in the current situation and was widely shared on Facebook.
A recent flurry of racially insensitive posts on social media app Yik Yak have added to the heated dialogue about racial issues at Duke. Imari Smith, a junior, compiled a Facebook album containing screenshots of Yik Yak posts that attempted to illustrate the current racial climate at Duke that received a large number of likes and shares.
Although some posts in the album highlighted the difficulties that black and minority students face on campus, others expressed confusion or frustration toward the new focus on race issues in Yik Yak dialogue at Duke—or denied the existence of those issues in the first place.
“Can’t wait to graduate so I don’t have to listen to this racism/feminism BS anymore,” one anonymous poster wrote. “Guys, seriously [stop] talking about race so much. I don’t see as much racism around campus as you guys claim,” another wrote.
Justin Bryant, a sophomore, said that posts on Yik Yak serve to underscore the gaps which need to be addressed in current dialogue on campus regarding racial issues.
"What we see on Yik Yak gives us an idea of the kinds of conversations we need to have," Bryant wrote in a Facebook message Thursday. "It is clear that many people on this campus do not fundamentally understand what racism is, the multitude of ways in which it presents itself and how it is damaging."
These posts have come as a number of race related incidents have occurred on other university campuses over the past month. On March 18, Martese Johnson, a black student at the University of Virginia, was beaten by police while he was being arrested for allegedly using fake identification to enter a bar.
Last week, the Black Students Alliance at Duke responded to the incident with a statement on their Facebook page—stating that black students could not avoid being targeted by law enforcement.
"No matter how petty the crime you commit, no matter how respectable your background and aesthetic representation is, black lives have been and continue to be in severe danger," the statement read.
"Exhausted all 'respectable' avenues"
In their email to students Thursday, Brodhead and Kornbluth urged all students to take shared responsibility for creating an open and tolerant community.
“Recent events across the country, including on college campuses, have reminded us that our dream of a colorblind and inclusive nation still has a long way to go,” the email stated. “In the face of this situation both nationally and close to home, we want to underline Duke’s fundamental values.”
The statement from the People of Color Caucus circulated on social media expressed frustration toward the administration’s failure at addressing race issues on campus.
“As a community of marginalized peoples and allies, we will no longer ask the administration and the larger Duke community for a seat at the table with them,” the statement reads. “We have exhausted all ‘respectable’ avenues, and they have not served us.”
Duke Chief of Police John Dailey said the Duke University Police Department has been actively engaged in addressing student concerns about potential racial bias on part of the police—including speaking at the President’s Council on Black Affairs and being available to leaders at BSA and the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association.
“Fortunately, we are a diverse department and include emotional intelligence as part of the selection process,” Dailey wrote in an email Thursday. “While we generally receive positive feedback about our interactions with the community, we are committed to continually monitoring and accessing our work.”
Pushing for change
The statement from Brodhead and Kornbluth comes shortly after the launch of the #WhatWeNeedFromDuke campaign, which aims to provide an outlet for students of color and other groups to express their fears, concerns and needs.
As of Thursday, the campaign had elicited more than 80 physical submissions through post-it notes on the glass wall of the Black Student Alliance office, as well as posts with the hashtag on social media.
“I attend a university where I fear for my safety,” one student wrote.
“For my university to stop ignoring my experiences and to value every student the same,” read another post.
BSA President Jamal Edwards, a junior, urged administrators to communicate with the broader Duke community about racial issues.
“As BSA’s president, I am in the position of receiving communication from the administration—but it’s still not enough,” he said. “What is critical is communication to the student body at large.”
As a whole, the student community needs to make a more conscious effort to support the needs of black students—and not just through conversation, Edwards said. He urged the student body to “think bigger than dialogue,” pointing to the specific requests that have been made through the #WhatWeNeedFromDuke campaign.
In order to address race-related issues on campus, it is imperative for the administration to first better comprehend the experience of students of color at Duke, Edwards said. One possible step would be to keep better data on the demographics and makeup of the black community at Duke, he noted.
“We have to better understand the black experience,” he said. “Otherwise we are poking at solutions in the dark.”
Although the University has made progress, there are long ways to go, Washington explained.
“More than anything, I think black students need to be listened to,” he wrote. “And we need our university to have as vested an interest in its students' experiences as it has in its own reputation. We recognize, and are thankful to administration for the strides they have already made at actualizing social equality on Duke's campus, but we are far from where we need to be.”