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Race at Duke: a conversation

Towerview talks to professor Kerry Haynie


After a year that produced more than its fair share of hate-based scandals both on and off Duke’s campus, tensions between minority groups and the University administration have been slowly building, though no direct action has been taken against any administrators as was seen at the University of Missouri earlier this month. With this in mind, Towerview asked Kerry Haynie, associate professor of political science and African and African American Studies, a series of questions regarding the current status of race relations and the University’s handling of the various incidents.

TOWERVIEW: Duke seems to currently be stuck in a six-month cycle, as the “death to all fags” message scrawled in East Duke residence hall is the latest hate crime to hit our campus in the past year. As a member of the Duke community that has been around for more than the usual student’s time of four years, are incidents like the hanging of a noose or the verbal and racial harassment of a student or the defacement of a Black Lives Matter sign as abnormal as they seem? And how, if at all, can Duke break out of this cycle and keep it from becoming the norm if it isn’t already?

KERRY HAYNIE: Unfortunately, it is much more than a six month cycle, and incidents like these are not abnormal occurrences on our campus. While they are not the norm, they happen with too much frequency. For example, in recent years a photo of a Duke student athlete in black face was posted on an Athletic Department website, fraternities have sponsored racist social events with titles like “Pilgrims and Indians” and “Asia Prime”, and the leadership of an academic unit planned and hosted departmental luncheons they labeled “Wok and Roll” and “PiE Fiesta,” at which there were Power Point presentations depicting faculty and staff in stereotypical ethnic dress. These are just a few of the ones about which we know. There are more, and I suspect there are similar events that happen underground or at off campus venues.

TV: Any time there is an on-campus disturbance, students can rely on receiving an email from either Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, or President Richard Brodhead admonishing the behavior of those hoping to direct fear and hatred. Both have vowed to make Duke’s campus a safer, more accepting place after each incident. From your perspective, is the University fulfilling its duties and is there anything more it could do to protect its students?

KH: I think senior administrators take seriously their responsibility and obligation to keep the campus safe, but they tend to be reactive rather than proactive, and it often seems the first impulse is to manage public relations rather than attend to the incident at hand and to those who may have [been] harmed by it. I know it can be difficult to make immediate sense of some of these incidents and that senior administrators have multiple concerns and interests to balance when faced with them, but we can and should do a better job of lessening the likelihood they will occur in the first place. This requires us to take a comprehensive “let the chips fall where they may” review of some of our institutional practices when it comes to marketing, recruitment, admissions, orientation, housing, and campus life in general. There seems to be reluctance on the part of some administrators to do this hard, but necessary work.

TV: Following the noose and the homophobic slur, students came together at the Chapel to rally and put forth new ideas and demands in order to prevent future attacks. Do you feel that the campus has shifted its culture or moved toward a more open and tolerant environment in the past year as a result of these rallies and the ideas cultivated at them?

KH: I think there is more awareness of student vulnerability and discontent, but I do not think there has been a positive change in the campus culture.

TV: Much of the focus following these incidents focused on the students and their reactions to them. How have you, as a faculty member and member of the Duke and Durham community, processed and handled the past year’s on-campus events?

KH: This is an important question. Universities tend to respond to these incidents as though only students are affected. The concerns of faculty and staff are often overlooked. This is especially the case for staff, as faculty have more opportunities and freedoms to make their views known. The administration tends to employ remedies and responses that correspond to the student life-cycle. That is, they attempt to manage and contain student reactions and unrest until the student body experiences turnover and loss of student institutional memory. This approach to crisis management leaves potential underlying problems largely untouched and ignores the workplace environment for staff and faculty who tend to inhabit campus for longer than four-year cycles. It should not be surprising that we have this same conversation every three to four years.

TV: University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigned this month as a result of the University’s inaction following several incidents of verbal and emotional racial harassment and the subsequent actions of #ConcernedStudent1950. Although different in action and response, what, if any, can Duke students and administrators take from the events at Missouri?

KH: One lesson Duke can take from this is the importance of being proactive and not waiting for simmering issues to come to a boil. Another lesson is the institution has to take seriously the complaints and concerns of members of the community who feel harassed or aggrieved. Acknowledging does not mean or imply acceptance or agreement, but it does indicate a willingness to do due diligence to insure that our community is welcoming and hospitable.

The University must also be more willing to listen to and learn from staff and faculty who engage students daily and routinely.

TV: Do you have any final thoughts or advice for the Duke community on how to better itself and become a more open environment?

KH: I think it is past time for a comprehensive review of our institutional practices that affect student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions. We’ve kicked the can down the road for too long. It is a disservice to all of Duke—students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni—for the current leadership to pass these issues along to the next regime without making a serious effort to address them.

I hope our students can find or create opportunities and spaces to engage one another in sincere and meaningful ways, so as to build some trust and mutual understandings. Faculty can and should be partners in this endeavor. Students should not wait on the administration to take such steps.

Duke should not be afraid to ask any question or fear any answer.


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