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Trask, Davis and the powers that be

As part of an annual series of distinguished speakers hosted by the Baldwin Scholars, activist Angela Davis is slated to speak at Duke Chapel later this month. Much like guests who have come before her, the professor emeritus and feminist icon has been a fervent advocate for social and economic justice for much of her life. During the height of her activist career, she was notably involved in a number of left-wing organizations like the Communist Party USA and the Black Panthers. However, what sets Professor Davis apart is the amount of state repression and demonization she has faced in her pursuit of a just society. While Davis’ life has been iconic in a number of fields, because her work—both inside and outside of academia—has largely been centered around race and power, it is poignout to ask how such themes can apply to Duke. In light of the timely Monday Monday column poking fun at Duke’s Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, the infamous administrator is the perfect candidate for an in-depth analysis on how race, power and punishment intersect in an inequitable society. 

For Davis’ legitimate activism in a number of left-wing organizations, then-Governor Ronald Reagan attempted to blacklist her from all university positions in the state of California. For having owned the guns that were involved in a lethal shooting, she was added to the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted List in 1970 and subsequently incarcerated for 18-months until her eventual acquittal. For her work to dismantle systems of white supremacy and racial subjugation, she was harassed by police and vilified by public figures. For having forever been at odds with men in power, Davis was subjugated under a definition of justice created by a white, patriarchal society. 

In comparison, despite having hit a parking attendant with his silver Porsche—a felony in the state of North Carolina—and having allegedly yelled a racial slur while driving away, Tallman Trask III has faced no legal, criminal or professional repercussions and remains the Executive Vice President at Duke to this day. The difference is simple. Trask has enough power, money and white privilege to absolve him of any wrongdoing. Davis had nothing but her moral consciousness. When she dared to actively challenged the status quo, she was met with punishment and force.

Individuals like Trask who hold positions of power—usually by virtue of their wealth and familial connections—possess the ability to set the ethical standard in our society. In his role as a high-ranking university administrator, he is able to define and modify the moral fabric of the institution itself.  Even when his actions were met by explicitly expressed moral outrage from students, faculty and community members, Trask has refused to acknowledge his moral culpability as a white man in power. Every day in which he continues to occupy his office on the second floor of the Allen Building and be paid by students’ tuition dollars, Mr. Trask is sending the message that racial harassment is ethically permissible. His standard of justice also allows for lying and, of course, hitting a parking attendance for the sole purpose of making it on time to a football game. For his transgressions, he has been rewarded with the affirmation of his job title as the “University's principal administrative and fiscal officer.” As a product off his power on campus and in society in general, Trask is ostensibly untouchable. Whereas he can break the law and maintain a comfortable salary as a product of his power, Davis was prosecuted and punished for her speaking out against the white patriarchy, which continues to protect dangerous individuals like Trask. 

Although institutional memory at a University is often limited, the fact that Trask still has a home at Duke should serve as the constant reminder of the inconsistencies and privileges of power that continue to permeate the campus. Professor Davis’ upcoming visit necessitates the contrast between a powerless activist’s crime-less punishment and a powerful administrator's punishment-less crime. What Duke needs is not just a resignation of one University administrator, but also an urgent cultural shift in how we view power, in that it should no longer be tolerated as a tool to bend justice towards self-gain. With his new administration, President Price has the opportunity to set things right. Failure to do so only perpetuated the message that at Duke, power is an immunity from justice. 

Note: Eren E. Bagis formally recused himself from this editorial


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