On June 17, 2020, President Vincent Price published a statement addressed to the Duke community regarding anti-racist initiatives, claiming that the University would “resolutely turn our attention toward the mission of anti-racism.” In its December issue, the Duke Alumni Magazine published “It’s Not All Racism,” a letter to the editor that gaslighted anti-Black oppression, shamed BIPOC for their marginalization, and demonstrated overt racism. The author of this letter, Charles Clutts, Trinity, ‘61, argued that “some of it [the plight of minority victims] falls on the victims themselves.” The two messages espoused by Duke appear contradictory—how, even, could they exist within the breadth of a single institution?
Kamryn Washington, a Black junior at Duke who tweeted about the incident, “wasn't really surprised about the article being written by someone who graduated Duke before Black students were allowed to attend.” Clutts notes that he graduated from an “all-white Duke” and did not understand until later that he benefited from “what is now called ‘white privilege,’” an acknowledgment of ignorance which is, ironically, devoid of self-awareness. However, despite any lack of surprise, the letter generated rightful outrage because of its explicit racism. And the question I posed earlier appears insignificant, rhetorical.
June Eric-Udorie, a Black senior at Duke and author of the viral tweet which exposed this letter online, says that the most astounding aspect of the letter was “the fact that Duke decided to publish this with no regard about how this would make them [Black students] feel.” Perhaps, then, I should not be asking, “How was this piece published?” but rather, why?
The answer is damning: Duke, alongside other elite institutions, exists within—and reproduces—a brand of vicious white hypocrisy. Duke’s racist roots, the racist incidents that occur frequently on campus today, and the unexamined white privilege that its students experience allow opinions like Clutts’ to be published. Duke’s legacy grants these opinions legitimacy.
President Price’s statement regarding anti-racism was professed in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, when sales of “White Fragility” and other similarly themed books jumped over 2000%, when anti-racism became a catchphrase, a black-square Instagram post, a new street sign. But Price’s statement provided little substantive reflection about Duke’s history; not once did it mention the role of slavery cemented within the foundations of Duke or the young girl enslaved by the Duke family. And not once did the statement mention the tireless work of the Duke Black Coalition Against Policing or any commitment to defunding or abolishing police on campus.
Eric-Udorie offers a fundamental question in response to these hollow professions of anti-racism: “How much are you [Duke administration] paying staff members who are Black and Brown, and do all the work to keep Duke running on a daily basis? Do they have access to the same benefits as white professionals, part of the ivory tower?”
Moreover, when previously radical terms such as anti-racism, which was coined by Angela Davis—a queer, Black, communist woman—flow toward the mainstream, they are diluted before reaching the watershed. “In this day and age, there are a lot of buzzwords, like Black Lives Matter and ‘abolishing the police’ that have been co-opted by less radical groups and publicized to mean something that they don't actually mean.” Washington says. This phenomenon cultivates an environment in which a consulting giant like McKinsey can pledge public commitments toward anti-racism while simultaneously advising ICE officials to engage in infamously tyrannical “detention savings opportunities.” The phrase “anti-racism is a smooth veneer applied by globalized companies to justify the continued exploitation of individuals in the Global South—while also implementing incremental change that ultimately serves the interests of corporate wealth. Higher education has long been coined a “profit-making business,” and its goals are similar: stage a veiled war of attrition through no-progress reforms, exhausting any student who advocates for systemic overhaul. “[These co-opted terms are] just a way for them [Duke] to appear like they're committed to the world without doing any of the work itself,” Eric-Udorie says.
This performative activism was not exposed in the December issue of Duke Alumni Magazine solely through Clutts’ letter. This issue was simultaneously devoted to anti-racism while spending a bit over ten pages outlining Tallman Trask’s legacy. “There’s a level of cognitive dissonance that has to be present for you [Duke magazine] to talk about Duke’s ambitions of being a more anti-racist institution, and then to talk about someone like Tallman Trask in a positive way,” Washington says. The aforementioned article only briefly discussed the incident in which Trask hit a parking attendant with his car, and the attendant accused him of calling her a racial slur—while expressly emphasizing that Trask denied the allegations. “He calls himself a left-of-center Democrat with a longstanding commitment to progressive values,” the next sentence read.
It’s not a secret that, as with nearly all liberal arts universities, Duke’s administration and professoriate is left-of-center-Democrat: “for each Republican faculty member in Pratt and Trinity, there are nearly 13 Democrats.” Duke is a left-of-center-Democrat university. And Duke is deeply entrenched in white supremacy. These two ideologies are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are profoundly intertwined.
Duke’s legacy is replete with racism from its administration and student body. Former Vice President Larry Moneta was “shocked” to hear the n-word included in rap lyrics—which he described as inappropriate—at a coffee shop, resulting in the firing of two employees. Academics have deemed Moneta’s reaction a “contemporary example of racism.” Megan Neely, an ex-director at Duke Medical School, authored an email that demanded Chinese students speak English.
The n-word was spray-painted on the Mary Lou; a swastika, painted on the East Campus bridge; a noose, hung on a campus tree; a Latinx mural, vandalized. These conspicuous episodes of white supremacy do not exist in a vacuum; they build upon the foundation of the University. They build upon the foundation of Southern history. They build upon the foundation of this country.
Eric-Udorie recognizes the University’s long-established injustices when speaking about the uncertainty of giving back to Duke post-graduation. She’s appreciative of the financial support she’s received as a low-income financially-independent student, but the “blazing” racism she experiences is ostracizing. Articles like these “just really isolate Black Duke. I’m a future Black Duke alum, and I have felt very uncomfortable for a long time. I am battling the benefits that I get from the education and my professors with the relentless racism,” Eric-Udorie says.
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It’s easy for white Duke students, myself included, to turn our heads away from this blazing racism; to say that we’ve read “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” that we’ve added an “anti-racism” highlight to our Instagram profile, that we’ve released a statement on behalf of our clubs or groups or organizations. We’re left-of-center. We’re not Charles Clutts.
Here’s the issue with this logic: at face value, every single white Duke student is exactly like Charles Clutts. White Duke students exist within a system of racialized capitalism, we profit from this system at the expense of others, and we continue to cause harm. Of course, the harm we cause by existing in white bodies does not excuse us from consequences and accountability; it merely means that good white people do not exist. So-called “good white people” distance ourselves from the violence perpetrated by those who look like us, insist upon our personal exceptionality, and therefore refuse to interrogate any of our own racist actions. I may not have published Clutts’ letter, but I nonetheless have a responsibility to denounce his words, as they are reinforced by centuries of oppression from which I am the benefactor.
Duke Alumni Magazine also appeared to denounce Clutts’ letter in the issuing of a Facebook apology for it, writing: “We made a mistake by presenting these letters without any context, reflection, deliberation or response, particularly given the wrenching and still incomplete efforts of so many in the Duke community to address issues of racial equity.” Eric-Udorie remembers thinking, “What is the context for racism? There’s no context needed for this.” Addressing racism is not transactional: no amount of reflection, context, deliberation, or response would have provided compensation for the disgusting bigotry so abundantly displayed in “It’s Not All Racism.”
An institutional apology cannot be exchanged for the erasure or glossing-over of Duke’s history. An apology is not enough, will never be enough. At bare minimum, white folks must give monthly reparations (and our time, if we’re able) to BIPOC-led organizations and mutual aid collectives to counteract our generational wealth and power. Duke NAACP, as well as other Duke Black-led student organizations, host fundraisers for incarcerated people in the Durham County Jail. The North Carolina Community Bail Fund “fights to end cash bail and provides assistance to those who cannot afford it” and Durham Beyond Policing is a coalition fighting to end the carceral state. Duke Mutual Aid and Bull City Mutual Aid send funds to individuals in Duke and/or Durham. Showing Up for Racial Justice has curated a list of POC-led organizations in the Durham area, and although a bit outdated, is still incredibly useful. Moreover, white Duke students must redistribute our power: Panhellenic and IFC are power and wealth-hoarding organizations, and advocating for abolition is a necessity. At protests, we are most helpful when using our bodies to shield Black folks from the police—we do not have the right to anger. Resource-sharing could look like spreading institutional knowledge or granting free stays to BIPOC organizers if we have extra housing capacity. These examples are not a comprehensive list, but they’re a start.
On page twenty-two of the Duke Alumni Magazine, another question was posed: Can Duke really become anti-racist? The author, recent alum Michael Ivory Jr., says no, that racism has always been about the roots, and we’re not ready to dig past the surface. Washington and Eric-Udorie agree. “The capitalist system as a whole can never be where we need it to be. The entire structure of the university would need to be taken down and rebuilt [as something else],” Washington says.
The Duke administration and white Duke students alike are gardening with poisoned soil. We might not have fertilized the dirt with overt white supremacy, but we’re planting seeds, and like necrophiliacs, watering the dead earth, celebrating as it grows into nothing.
Lily Levin is a Trinity sophomore.