The independent news organization of Duke University

New year, same problems?

Welcome back to Duke and happy first day of classes! As Duke officially begins its 94th academic year, the Editorial Board will commence our own editorial cycle by addressing the recent vandalism of the Mary Lou Williams Center. Chiefly, this incident represents an opportunity for us as a new campus community to explore the implications of racially-motivated acts at an institution that continues to struggle with strained race relations. 

The beginning of the school year was shaping up to be like all others. The parents and siblings of Duke students flooded into East Campus armed with futons and cardboard boxes. First-year students experienced what for many has been their first tastes of freedom: their first lukewarm can of Keystone Light, their first time at a nightclub (also a human sauna), their first time doing laundry. In the spirit of paternal optimism, President Price urged first-year students during convocation to “reject false standards of perfection or high expectations” as newly minted Dukies. As upperclassmen were gearing up to move onto campus, the stage was set for a blissful fall semester. Fittingly, for many first-year and returning students, the optimism of a bright new year at Duke has been shattered somewhat in light of a recent hate crime committed against black students. 

On Saturday, August 25, 2018, the Chronicle reported that "n*****” had been etched over the word "Black" in “The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.” While this incident needs no rehashing, it is important to take note of the repeated instances of racism, discrimination and harassment that have been directed towards black students at Duke and the general culture that has allowed such hate to persist.

Over the past few years, Duke students have been subjected to a number of troubling racially-motivated incidents as well as the administration’s failure to properly respond to such crimes. In April of 2015, barely a week after the present senior class was admitted into Duke, a noose was found hanging outside the Bryan Center. Later that October, a poster advertising the upcoming visit of #BlackLivesMatter founder Patrisse Cullors was defaced with a racial slur, prompting a campus-wide forum. In April of 2016, students staged a sit-in protest at the Allen Building in which they demanded the resignation of Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III who had allegedly hit a contract parking employee with his car and used a racial slur. To close out the 2017-2018 year, a student posted a derogatory snapchat picture mocking African American culture, which was immediately followed by the vandalization of 300 Swift with the phrase “n***** lover.”

Though the aforementioned events were met with student activism, outrage and disappointment, they ultimately represent a systemic race issue that the University still has not properly addressed. Time and time again, students of any given incoming class are congratulated for the hard work and determination that have led them to the Gothic Wonderland. To be fair, this admiration is well deserved. Yet students should also question the value of their accomplishments if they are tacitly permitted to show the worst parts of their character or be the targets of discrimination and harassment on a campus that is supposed to allow growth and celebrate the potential held by each member of its diverse community.

It goes without saying that Duke students should hold themselves to the Community Standard in all circumstances. That primarily academic violations like plagiarism are treated with the most gravity is perhaps telling of Duke’s commitment or lack thereof toward ensuring that it is a community that actively deters racism, rather than simply being non-racist. 

A standardized policy in the Duke Community Standard on racial harassment would be a step in the right direction by Price’s administration in creating a framework for anti-racism on campus. The University of California Berkeley’s statement on Free Speech states that “Some forms of speech are not constitutionally protected and may be grounds for discipline.” This includes, but is not limited to, speech that qualifies as “certain severe or pervasive harassment.” While there may be ambiguity on what is either severe or pervasive, harassment is defined as aggressive pressure or intimidation to which there is little debate given the aforementioned incidents.

We acknowledge that no system is perfect and can often fail in pursuing its intended mission. However, there is a clear difference between proactively eliminating a problem and reacting once harm has occurred. While a policy recommendation is a necessary step in preventing future disrespect towards African Americans and other marginalized groups, it is not enough. The root causes of racism, bigotry and the like must be addressed if there is to be any significant progress. But doing so poses a difficult challenge, as if years of social conditioning and upbringing can be eliminated with one quick policy change. What more can be done? As we delve deeper into the academic year, perhaps time will tell if we have truly grown and developed as a campus community. 

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