We’ve heard it long before coming here: Duke is safe and Durham is sketchy. Step outside the stone walls of East Campus and crime-ridden neighborhoods await. When I toured Duke in summer of 2017, someone asked if East Campus was safe being situated so close to downtown Durham. The tour guide reassured the pfrosh that several safety features such as help towers, security guards, and Duke Alert existed on campus. She went on to say that most students feel extremely safe while on Duke campus, quelling the fears of the trembling pfrosh while implying that Durham inherently imposes a threat on the Duke student population.
The fears many Duke students hold of parts of Durham are rooted in a biased perception of the city. The characterization of Durham by Duke students as a crime-ridden city, or “sketchy” as I have heard countless times, is indicative of the strained relationship Duke and Durham have had since Duke’s conception. Despite a rich history of successful business and cultural movements, Durham has been viewed as unsafe and inferior for years by outsiders. This racially-influenced characterization of Durham has percolated to Duke students’ current view of the city, and contributes to the lack of interaction many students have with the Durham community.
Duke students have tendency to accept this portrait of Durham as sketchy, and in doing so we ignore issues of safety and crime prevalent on our own campus, from our own students. Since we are college students at a elite university, we view our breaches of the law and order with a different attitude than crime in Durham. Students can feel comfortable with drinking and getting drunk in public while on campus since alcohol policy violations are handled by student conduct, instead of the local police force.
Students who engage in recreational drug use also face fewer repercussions and feel more freedom than Durham residents. There is a illusory sense of safety when doing drugs at an institution like Duke that makes substances seem less dangerous just from their context. Duke students who habitually use certain drugs are treated differently by society. When Duke students buy drugs locally, the legal consequences are rarely felt by them but often by the surrounding community. The attitude that there is a distinction between Duke students and the rest of society leads us to conceptualize substance abuse among us as party habits or personal issues rather than crime. Our place at an elite institution allows us to breach safety and healthy boundaries constantly, without compromising our innate status as “safe” and “not-sketchy.”
Duke also feels more sketchy for different people. The sexual assault rate at Duke is 40 percent of female undergraduates, double the national average. The idea that Duke is a safer place to go out than Durham is flawed given the incredibly high rates of gender violence on campus. These crimes are again viewed differently when the perpetrators are Duke students, both because of the leniency Duke students receive and our treatment of Duke students as innately worthy of respect and privileges. The Duke community can be unwelcoming for racial minorities, especially after frequent hate speech incidents on campus and lackluster administrative response. While white Duke students may feel scared only when stepping off campus, students of color can be on edge after racial incidents and when in all-white spaces. Members of the LGBT community feel unsafe after hate speech incidents and when in overwhelmingly straight places. If you are someone who has never felt that Duke is “sketchy,” consider what aspects of your identity and your experiences contribute to that feeling of safety.
A few weeks ago my dad asked me if Durham was still as “sketchy” as it was when he went here. I reminded him that years ago, he and some other students tore down a field goal post after a football game and dragged it back to East Campus to be burned. While dragging back the post, the students inflicted massive damage to cars and roadside structures. Although current students satisfy their pyromaniac tendencies with closely regulated bench burning, many of us still partake in illegal activities. Although there may be nothing inherently wrong with alcohol or recreational drug use, we should be aware of how our status in society allows us to do those things freely under a different set of laws and stigma than other members of society.
We need to recognize the privilege that we have to make mistakes, be lightly reprimanded, and continue on with our education. In our time at Duke we are kept safe from consequences that destroy low-income communities for the same actions. To call Durham “sketchy” is to disrespect the city’s rich history and ignore how systems of inequality operate in this country. As Duke students, we should challenge the ways we are conditioned to think and learn that Durham is not a threat. And likewise, consider that maybe we as Duke students can be a threat, disturbance or nuisance to our surrounding community.
Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.