Editor's note: Some readers may find the photographs included this article discomforting for their depiction of racial, homophobic and anti-semitic slurs. Please be advised.
A racial slur targeting black people and threats against homosexuals and Jewish people were discovered Sunday, spray-painted under the East Campus Bridge. Members of the Duke University Chapter of the NAACP and their advisor, Alec Greenwald, found the slurs upon arriving to the scene just before 1:00 p.m.
“When we arrived to begin painting for our event, we noticed the hate speech and chose that area to paint over,” wrote Duke NAACP President Guilbert Francois over email.
After the discovery, who had arrived at the tunnel with his children to support the Duke Chapter of the NAACP, Greenwald captured the slurs before the decision was made to paint over those areas and proceed with the event. Collaborating groups included the Asian Student Alliance and Mi Gente.
In an email, Greenwald explained the sight he and his children encountered: “As we were waiting for the other student groups to trickle in, my kids wanted to read some of the messages that were on the tunnel. As we walked through the tunnel, we arrived at 3 derogatory messages targeting various identity groups. After having a conversation with my kids about the messages, I suggested to the student groups that we focus on that portion of the wall to paint over.”
The Duke University Police Department was not notified before the slurs, targeting members of the black, queer and Jewish communities, were painted over. The identity of the offender remains unknown, as does their affiliation to the university.
The Duke NAACP event, which went on as scheduled from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., had students paint the issues that mattered the most to them given the current political climate surrounding the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.
For many members of minority communities, as horrific as these slurs may be, the existence of such anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist language is not of tremendous surprise. Notably, these spray painted slurs are only the latest in a trend of racial slurs found across campus. Last fall, a Black Lives Matter poster promoting a talk by Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, was defaced in White Lecture Hall. In November, a death threat tied to a homophobic slur was found on a whiteboard in an East Residence Hall.
As expressed by Duke NAACP in an email statement: “The hate speech covering the graffiti wall was unfortunate, but perhaps more unfortunate was that the existence of the slurs was genuinely unsurprising to many of the students present. Racism and homophobia are not relics of an ancient and forgotten America—or Duke, for that matter—that has since been cleansed of imperfection with time. They are instead inevitable in the experience of many of the students on this campus. Extreme examples such as this only serve to remind us of the work that remains to be done in ensuring that members of our community feel safe during their earned pursuit of academic excellence.”
“We deplore in the strongest possible terms these cowardly and offensive acts. To be clear, blatantly hateful, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic graffiti has no place and no protection on campus, period,” wrote by Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld in an email.
This election season, racially-motivated comments have spurred violence as close to the university as in Fayetteville, where a Donald Trump supporter sucker-punched a black protester. Importantly, although the vile language of certain political leaders may be easy to identify, the true devastation occurs with the bigotry that pervades our society—Sunday’s tunnel messages are only yet another example.
Coincidentally, these messages were found merely hours after a firebomb went off at a GOP office in Hillsborough. “Nazi Republicans leave town or else” and a swastika were found spray-painted on a nearby building.
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The racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric of “leaders” such as Trump are only reflections of the insecurities and angst felt by certain members of the American population—to disregard his remarks as is to discount the experiences of the millions of Americans who continually encounter and endure microaggressions, verbal assault and physical violence as a result of bigotry.
In previous situations such as this, Duke’s activists have chosen to express solidarity by organizing peaceful protests and gatherings to shine light on these issues. However, with protests and Chapel gatherings becoming as ubiquitous as ever, it is important that the severity of this specific verbal assault not be droned out or limited by the fatigue or complacency some may find it easier to adopt.
Although the identity of the culprit remains unknown, the handwriting appears to be uniform across all three phrases, suggesting a sole individual might be responsible. Conjecture on the identity of the offender need not consume the campus-wide discussions on the writing in the tunnel—after all, culpability is an abstract construct.
The top priority should be to ensure that the affected communities feel as supported and safe as possible. Ultimately, the words written on the tunnel represent what one could safely characterize as a death threat to Jewish students on campus, although no police judgements to that extent have been made. This individual, who chose to use an ethnic slur popular in Nazi Germany to reference Jewish people, evoked the phrase “gas the k***s,” an evil tribute to one of the most inhumane genocides in history, which occurred less than 100 years ago.
Now more than ever is the time for students of all backgrounds to step up to the plate in going beyond expressions of solidarity and depthless social media statuses. It is time now to act on internal drives for equality, rather than pretending that simply acknowledging the marginalization of certain demographics is enough.
Instead of succumbing to the now highly-politicized rhetoric of safe spaces, we must challenge ourselves to make room for healing, while also looking for solutions to end bigotry on campus if not worldwide; the menacing forces that breed individuals who are capable of making such heinous statements on our Campus Drive stretch beyond the campus limits. That does not, however, mean to suggest that efforts be unsubstantial. The true tragedy that may unfold again with discussions over safe spaces will concern how these environments have come to be framed. It is quite ill-fated that we distinguish between safe spaces and non-safe spaces when the true problem here must be defined as a matter between safe versus unsafe spaces.
Though at this time a definite relationship between the threats and the group from Duke NAACP that found them remains unknown, the symbolism of the ordeal is to be noted. Time will tell if and how the administration will respond to and act upon these new developments. It remains unclear how the task force on bias and hate issues’ recommendations from May have influenced the university campus culture. In the long run, the only way to demonstrate veritable commitment to this issue is through action; the institutional authority remains in the hands of the administration, as well as with the student leaders who will command action.
Irrespectively, from our classrooms to our residential communities and between our administrators and students, we must all remind ourselves and one another of the standards we hold ourselves accountable to. Sunday’s tunnel graffiti is an overt manifestation of hateful beliefs and actions that underlie the experiences of far too many; the slurs and attacks represent an assault to the entire Duke University community.
Although paint was used to cover up this hateful language, the hallowing corruption of morality need remain potently clear and palpable for the time being. Our immediate condemnation and proactivity is imperative.
Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “in formation,” typically runs on alternate Mondays.