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How the recent racially charged incidents on Duke's campus relate to previous ones

<p>Students held a study-in at the Allen Building on Saturday afternoon to demand a University policy against hate speech.</p>

Students held a study-in at the Allen Building on Saturday afternoon to demand a University policy against hate speech.

A racial epithet written on a students' door during the night. Students overheard chanting racial slurs loudly along with the lyrics of a song. Snapchats containing the same word exposed on the Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens page.

As students prepare for exams, a series of racially charged incidents have come to light on campus in recent days.

First, a student's Snapchat story appeared Thursday in Duke's meme page. The first image showed a hand holding a bottle of Hennessy with the caption "Howdy, I’m a n*****.” A second photo pictured two men holding bottles captioned "JK i am not a n*****." 

The next day, an email from Janine Weaver-Douglas, associate dean of Central Campus residence life, informed Central Campus residents in an email that a 300 Swift apartment complex resident's door was defaced with the racial epithet. Lisa Beth Bergene, associate dean of East Campus, wrote in an email sent to East Campus resident assistants and graduate residents Friday night that the slur used was "n***** lover."

“Behavior and action in this vein are unacceptable on this campus," Weaver-Douglas wrote in the Friday morning email.

The same morning as the incident at 300 Swift, a recently created Facebook account—listed under the name Michael Scayfield—posted a message in the meme page Friday morning with a racially charged request to "discuss why people say blacks are feeling unsafe right now." No one with the name Michael Scayfield is enrolled at Duke.

Duke’s administration has denounced the acts—but with no policy banning hate speech, no formal action has been taken on the Snapchat incident. According to Bergene's email, no responsible party had been found for the 300 Swift incident.

Two weeks prior to these incidents, a student reported to a residence coordinator that in a West Campus residence hall, a group of students was "loudly" and "enthusiastically singing the word racial slurs along with the lyrics of a song," according to Bergene's email.

These events are not the only to spark campus-wide discussion in recent years.

Henry Washington, Trinity ‘17, was president of the Black Student Alliance in Oct. 2015 when a Black Lives Matter event poster was defaced when someone crossed out the word "black" and replaced it with "white," adding "NO n******" below it. That same year, a number of racially charged incidents occurred across campus. A noose was hung on the Bryan Center Plaza in April, and allegations were made that white students chanted a song that included racial slurs at a black female student. 

Washington doesn’t think that these two series of incidents are part of a snowball effect. 

“Students are going to continue to be targeted by hate speech until there is a policy that is implemented to stop them,” Washington said. “The snowball effect undermines the extent to which these incidents are related to a systemic problem of race and racism that has existed for as long as black students have been on Duke’s campus.”

Washington expressed solidarity with Duke People's State of the Union, an activist group that organized a "study-in" outside the Allen Building Saturday to push for a "standardized set of consequences for acts of hate and bias." The group posted a petition with nearly 500 signatures to the doors of the building. 

When asked about the incident at 300 Swift, Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, said it was not reflective of Duke’s student body. 

“As far as we know, it’s just hit-and-run graffiti," Moneta said. 

He added that he does not plan to make significant changes following the recent spate of incidents. 

“I don’t have a plan for a major initiative,” Moneta said Friday. “You want to be careful—you want to react appropriately and not just run around to do things that have no meaning. I think we need to just sit back and think about what is going on that a few people would feel like that was a good way to behave.” 

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, responded to the incidents in an email Saturday night. 

"Racial incidents such as the ones reported this week are a scourge at Duke, and on the many other campuses that experience them," he wrote. "That conduct is contrary to our values of inclusion and respect and should be called out and condemned quickly and harshly. In no way does it represent the Duke that we aspire to be."

In a tweet Friday morning, Moneta suggested that those who want to ban hate speech should read "Free Speech on Campus," a book by Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley Law, and Howard Gillman, chancellor and professor of law at UC Irvine.

"Freedom of expression protects the oppressed far more than the oppressors," Moneta wrote.

Schoenfeld noted that he does agree with Moneta's statement about freedom of expression being important for protecting oppressed groups.

"History has shown that the best, most effective and most enduring response to bad speech is more speech and better speech," Schoenfeld wrote in an email. "That can be a challenging task on a diverse campus, but it is the foundation of our commitment to an open community."

Washington said he envisions a system in which students that perpetrate hate speech are vulnerable to disciplinary consequences from the student conduct board. But Washington said he doesn't think that discipline alone is the solution. Education on the violence of hate speech and its history would encourage them to act different, he noted. 

“It would be balancing discipline with instruction so that we’re not just singling out students who use hate speech, but so that we’re moving towards an institutional culture that is different,” Washington said.

Washington said that the administration should have responded with less apathy.

“There’s a way to balance those acts better than they have in the past and doing a better job of listening to students instead of just telling them to read a book,” Washington said. “[As a student], I just wanted reassurance that the administrators actually cared about the racism that students were experiencing and that they were willing to do something to promote change.”

Junior Kristina Smith, president of Duke Student Government, declined to comment. She indicated that she will be meeting with administration next week to discuss the incidents and how the University is planning to move forward.

Bergene did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. 

Correction: This article was updated Monday morning to correctly reflect a quote by Washington. The quote is "balancing discipline with instruction," not "balancing discipline with consequences." The Chronicle regrets the error.

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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