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Racial controversy at Duke: our historical footprint

On Friday, our campus was again thrust into turmoil when a poster advertising the upcoming visit of #BlackLivesMatter founder Patrisse Cullors was defaced with a racial slur. This troubling event occurred on the heels of another racially charged display at Duke when a noose was hung in April. Following the noose incident, administrators and student leaders spoke about the need to overcome these acts, and students debated for weeks the implications, guilt and rage engendered across campus. Responses to last Friday’s event have repeated the same language, but have left us confused about what effective steps have been taken to improve race relations at Duke.

Last week, we called for tangible action by administration, organizations and the student body. This starts from recognizing the historical landscape of racial tension at Duke and our relationship to the history of racial oppression within the United States generally and the American South particularly. This year’s troubling events are not isolated instances, but reflect rather context within which we all exist as students, faculty and staff.

In 1969, Duke students organized the Allen Building sit-in advocating for a safe community and formal organization for black students at Duke with 2,000 students gathered. In 1997, racial tensions flared when students incited a misguided racial protest by lynching a black doll. In 2003, Duke received national attention for outrage over the “Viva Mexico” party. In 2006, the Duke Lacrosse case illuminated the complex intersections of race, privilege and justice. In 2011, a list of offensive fraternity parties made clear the extent of the problem among Greek organizations. In 2012, an unpublished study drew criticism when it was construed as denigrating minority student achievements. In 2013, Duke again made national news with Kappa Sigma’s “Asia Prime” party. In 2015, we have been kept vigilant by nooses, summer professorial opinion controversies and racial slurs.

These events take place in a state that gave rise to student organization around racial equality during the Civil Rights movement and in the city that housed Black Wall Street before its destruction. Discussions of race are a part of the very fabric of the Southern academic institution and must not be ignored. Yet, for all those involved, the conversation is emotionally charged and highly nuanced.

It is not unreasonable then that students unfamiliar with these many past conversations are confused or defensive. It is also not unreasonable that those who deal with these questions in their lived experiences are fatigued. The empathy that is critical to moving forward is not possible when the Other’s position is unexamined. Examination requires discussing the structural nature of racism and its history at the University and in our country. Understanding history requires charitably engaging it, not doggedly questioning its every step. It means seeing how it has shaped communities, being deeply with people and only in this way arriving at the catharsis that building community in the face of tragedy allows us.

The premier academic institution of the South, Duke—however you cut it—has a responsibility to not only be equipped as a safe place for students and employees of color, but to become an example in the development of a truly innovative system of education on issues of race and of the benefits of deep understanding. Today we have briefly clarified the long and storied history of racial discourse, the complex reactions race elicits and the important role of our University in creating and improving diverse communities, particularly in the South. In tomorrow’s editorial we will outline the tangible actions we believe must be taken to make Duke and its student body the leaders they have the potential to be.


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