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The crying shame of apathy

Last Friday, the Provost’s office held an all-day forum on race, policing and the broader justice system in the United States. Over nine hours, speakers from across the country, including law professors, sociology professors, police chiefs and activists, gathered in panels to discuss and debate. The event, free for students, offered a chance for members of the Duke community to gain intimate knowledge of the intersection between policing and race relations that all too often makes news headlines with tragedy, but rarely generates educated conversation. Duke graduate students and professional students clearly recognized the importance of the opportunity, showing up in droves to attend the event. Duke undergraduates, however, did not. In a sad demonstration of apathy, they largely spurned the day-long event.

The forum itself was masterfully composed and executed. Throughout the day, it moved through a series of six panels designed to walk the audience through a broad overview of the problems of “policing color.” A few of the panels were cerebral; more of them were painful and emotionally trying. All, however, were worth attending. By calling upon a combination of expert voices on policing and voices of those affected by policing, the forum wove together strands of a multifaceted story often quickly brushed over with carelessly broad strokes.

Many of us at Duke are guilty of thinking along those broad strokes. When speaking about issues of police and race, we regurgitate CNN headlines, offer up baseless memes and hide behind social media hashtags to make up for a lack of substantive knowledge about the topic. This forum was a chance to improve that—to engage with social justice on a humanistic and academic level. Yet we failed. Perhaps the failure simply stems from a lack of buy-in. Unlike most graduate and professional students, undergraduate students at Duke do not live in areas of Durham with many people of color. Perhaps, though, the lack of undergraduate Duke students at the event suggests that many simply do not care of about the issues they constantly post about to Facebook and Twitter. A quick read on the Huffington Post or the National Review constitutes enough effort for them to convince themselves that they understand the problem. That is a crying shame: many will go on to influence policy related to police brutality without a clear idea of the of its all-too-real repercussions. Even those who do not go into policy will carry on conversations about police and race in the future lacking worthwhile knowledge.

Students were not only failed by themselves, though. Bar a couple of Duke emails, the administration made little effort to advertise the Provost’s Forum to their own undergraduates. In the future, that should not be the case. In addition to promoting such events more heavily themselves, the administration ought to use its sway with certain academic departments like political science, public policy and AAAS to persuade them to sell the event to students. It would be a pity for any student who cared about issues of race and policing to miss the entire event simply because they did not hear about it.

Realistically though, most students probably did hear about the event; it was just brushed away as a time-sucking presentation stealing away hours of a precious Friday. On an ostensibly progressive campus like Duke’s, that is astonishing and revelatory of thinly concealed hypocrisy among students. Those who claim to support people targeted by discrimination and oppression ought to show up to events like the forum. Passive support of allies is even more insulting than outright denial from those who hold opposing views, and Duke students certainly seemed passive last week.

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