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Duke searching for solutions in wake of racial incidents

After a series of hateful incidents, Duke is working to combat a troubling campus climate.

On the morning of April 1, a noose was found hanging from a tree on the Bryan Center Plaza. The incident, which sparked a wave of campus-wide dialogue centered on racial climate at Duke, was one of a string of racially charged events that have occurred in 2015. Less than two weeks prior to the hanging of the noose, white male students allegedly chanted a racist song at a black female student.

On Oct. 18, junior Elizabeth Kim posted on the All Duke Facebook page that she had heard several male students shouting racial slurs outside her bedroom window at 2 a.m. And last Friday, a poster for a talk given by Black Lives Matter movement co-founder Patrisse Cullors was defaced with racial slurs.

Despite the incidents, Duke has come a long way on racial issues in recent years, said Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, adding that individual acts of hate are unavoidable on a campus of Duke’s size.

“I don’t believe we will ever be incident-free,” Moneta said. “Every time it happens, it just reminds us there is more work to be done.”

A policy on hate crimes?

Many students were disappointed by how the administration handled the noose incident once the perpetrator was identified by a University investigation. The student who hung the noose was not identified and was eligible to return to campus the following semester after receiving a sanction. In an open letter to the Duke community, the student stated they had been unaware of the historical connotations of a noose, and had hung it as a joke.

Marcus Benning, a second-year student at the School of Law, former president of the Black Student Alliance and member of the Duke Student Publishing Company board of directors, noted that North Carolina General Statute 14 specifically outlaws placing a noose anywhere in the State with the intention to intimidate.

“It’s a hate crime. It’s against North Carolina law,” Benning said. “The University, by refusing to refer prosecution for this man or woman for hanging the noose, was shielding a criminal and impeding a potential state investigation.”

The question of whether the noose incident qualifies as a hate crime is part of a larger debate over the necessity of a hate crime policy, which currently does not exist at Duke. Creating such a policy is the first step in preventing future incidents, Benning argued.

“There hasn’t been any real dedicated effort to stopping hate crimes,” Benning said. “Campus conversations about why you shouldn’t be racist are important. Writing literature is important. It gets attention, it gets on people’s radar. But at bottom, people respond to incentives.”

This summer, students at the School of Law polled black law students about their experiences and created a set of recommendations based on their responses. One of the recommendations was a university-wide hate crime policy, though Moneta was skeptical that such a policy would actually prevent future hate crimes.

“There’s no further policy change that would make any difference," Moneta argued. "The notion of something that’s distinctive for hate crimes isn’t something that is best resolved with more policy. We’ve got a 104-page policy booklet. We have all the policy we need to act.”

He added that no college has been able to devise language that enables free speech while preventing hateful expression.

The Office of Student Conduct does not have a section on hate crimes or bias incidents, and hate crimes do not have their own designation in the annual Clery Act security reports published by the University. Benning noted that schools such as the University of California, Santa Barbara have specific hate incident reporting forms.

The University has a bias response advisory committee that advises the Office of Student Affairs, but the committee has no disciplinary power, wrote Chandra Guinn, committee co-chair and director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, in an email.

“In the long term, I think the only thing that will work is policy," Benning said. "Until the University articulates a clear policy on hate crimes, we don’t have a way to hold the University accountable.”

Student-led initiatives

On April 2, Duke Student Government passed a resolution in support of a list of “essential action items” drafted by BSA March 31. The four items included the addition of cultural competency components to freshman orientation; the creation of a pre-orientation program for black students; greater transparency of incident reports concerning incidents of bias; and the creation of a social justice fellowship allowing students to propose projects about topics such as bias and injustice.

This year, the Office of New Student Programs revamped orientation week programming to include discussions on building an inclusive campus climate.

“We’ve heard very good things about administrative intent and the fact that there were discussions at all,” junior Ilana Weisman, DSG vice president for equity and outreach, said.

She noted, however, that there could have been more small group sessions rather than presentations. In addition, resident assistants could facilitate discussions rather than first-year advisory counselors.

“The test of the effectiveness of that orientation will be over the next three and a half years,” Moneta said. “Will those students be even more powerful advocates for change?”

Another main focus of the action items was the creation of the Social Justice Fellowship, which will function as a “micro-grant” system, Weisman said. For instance, if a student was interested in doing a research project on race relations in Durham schools, they could apply for funding through the fellowship.

It will be funded by $6,000 from DSG, a contribution matched by the Office of Student Affairs, she said, noting that the fellowship should be ready to fund project submissions by the end of the semester.

In addition, DSG will begin reaching out to cultural groups on campus, Weisman said. Next semester, DSG plans to coordinate a series of discussions called “How to Be a Better Ally.”

Kim said she would like to see improved communication between the different cultural groups, allowing them to cooperate on future initiatives.

“The most practical way to move forward is that whatever these groups decide on, have the administration support that and back that up and help spread the news and publicity,” she said.

A symbol of progress

Although the slurs scrawled on the poster and shouted near Kim’s window were symbols of hate, the overwhelming student responses in both cases were symbols of progress, Moneta said.

“The measure of success is the speed at which the campus expresses its outrage,” Moneta said. “These are things that wouldn’t have even got people’s attention some time ago.”

Freshman Njideka Nwosu, whose Facebook post about the vandalism Friday galvanized the student response, noted that the perpetrators of racial hate acts represent a very small minority. Nonetheless, she said the perpetrators themselves are not the only ones at fault.

“If people keep saying, ‘It’s not everyone,’ it’s no better to sit back and let it happen than to be the one perpetrating the act,” Nwosu said. 

Kim agreed, adding that the fight against racism is a battle each person must wage. 

“It really comes down to an individual level," Kim said. "Of course, great big campus dialogues are wonderful. Gatherings on the Chapel steps—those are big things. But it’s really the little things that keep the true momentum going.”


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