Editor’s Note: This article contains a description of a racist incident.
A printout of George Floyd’s toxicology report was hung beside a photo of his face on a Black History Month-themed bulletin board on the third floor of Brown dorm on Saturday.
Each compound listed on the toxicology report was underlined with a pink pen, and the person wrote notes across the top of the page insinuating that Floyd was responsible for his own death.
“Mix of drugs presents in difficulty breathing!” the person wrote. “Overdose? Good man? Use of false currency is felony!”
John Blackshear, dean of students and associate vice president for student affairs, met with students on Saturday afternoon to discuss the incident. Students who were present said they were frustrated with his remarks at the meeting, which they said characterized the incident as a matter of opinion. Blackshear, however, asserted that he was clear that the incident was designed to “distress the community.”
Blackshear said the incident will be investigated and that evidence has been turned over to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards. Brown residents will have a mandatory meeting Wednesday to discuss the incident, according to an email obtained by The Chronicle from the residence coordinator who oversees the dorm.
The printout is discovered
First-year Matt Mohn first saw the posters on Saturday. He told The Chronicle that he had a lot of work to do, so when he first left his room, it was already past noon.
Mohn said that he saw a new piece of paper on the Black History Month bulletin board and thought it was something related to COVID-19 or the shelter-in-place order. He looked closer and “did not believe what [he] was seeing.”
“The thing that stuck out to me the most was the whole ‘good man’ thing,” Mohn said. “It wasn’t mirroring what was put up on the board. It wasn’t a play on words. It was literally just the author voicing their own opinion that he wasn’t a good man because he had a counterfeit 20-dollar bill.”
Mohn immediately took a picture of the posters and sent it to the GroupMe chat for residents of Brown. He said that one of the resident advisors came and took the poster down by the time he got back to his dorm. The photo also circulated in GroupMe chats for the Class of 2024 and Black students.
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Students meet with Blackshear
First-year Emily Prudot Gonzalez, a Brown resident, told The Chronicle that her resident assistant messaged the third floor telling them that Blackshear was outside of Brown and to come down for a meeting.
According to students who were there, the meeting started at around 2 p.m. and lasted until around 2:30 p.m.
Gonzalez said that the meeting felt “odd” to her “because a lot of the things that Blackshear said just sounded like he was allowing that to happen.”
“It just sounded like it was simply an opinion—that someone can have even though that ‘opinion’ that literally targets Black people” Gonzalez said, describing the incident as “dangerous.”
Brown is currently home to first-year students in the Cardea Fellows Program, a program designed to support pre-health students, whose members are predominantly Black and Latinx.
“It hurts because this dorm consists of all freshmen Cardeas, many of [whom] are Black, and so you’d think that this could be a safe space for them only for this incident to happen,” Gonzalez said.
“This was someone who came into this building knowing that it was basically this community of color and then put this up there,” Mohn said. “The alternative was that they’ve lived here the entire year and struck from within by putting that stuff out. Neither of those options are good.”
Students said they wished Blackshear would have used different language during the meeting.
“I just felt really uncomfortable with him calling it an opinion instead of a racist statement,” Gonzalez said. She felt like Blackshear “made it seem like it was just something we had to live with.”
First-year Michael Manns wrote in an email that the meeting with Blackshear was “disappointing” and didn’t offer him the sense of relief and security he had hoped for.
“I wanted to feel safe in the knowledge that Duke would find the person responsible and discipline them to the fullest extent. Instead, I was met with distasteful remarks that seemed to invalidate my feelings and experiences while simultaneously epitomizing just how insincere Duke’s anti-racist platform truly is,” Manns wrote.
Blackshear told The Chronicle on Sunday that he characterized the event as an “attempt to agitate and distress the community.”
“As I said to students yesterday, I am not blind to the fact that we have a community here of people with all sorts of opinions and beliefs about everything we do, but that was not what that was about,” Blackshear said.
He said that he went to meet with students immediately after the incident report was filed because he “was thinking about the students who were in that space.” He added that he “did not take it lightly—obviously, [he] would not have been there if [he took] it lightly.”
He said he had to put his feelings aside before attending the meeting.
“I’m glad I took a deep breath before I went, because when I saw it—like all of us who stand for anti-racism, equity and justice—you have your feelings,” Blackshear said. “I can’t escape from being a Black man who has a reaction to that, but I had to set my reactions aside and go see my students.”
He noted that the students told him that they didn’t want an email or to get on a Zoom call and talk about how they’re hurting.
“My commitment is to them and making sure that we will investigate this fully,” Blackshear said.
Mohn told The Chronicle that Blackshear said “don’t let this ruin your Saturday” at the meeting, which he said “came off as insensitive.” Blackshear said that he meant it to say that administrators are taking care of the issue.
“I was asking students to give it to us. Let us go ahead and investigate it. Let us go ahead and walk it out,” Blackshear said. He said that it was never meant to downplay the incident.
“I thought about that thing all night. I can’t downplay that myself, so I’m not going to ask the students to downplay that—it occurred right outside their doors,” Blackshear said.
Blackshear said that all the available information has been turned over to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards. He acknowledged that sometimes students are not told when resolutions are met in situations of holding people accountable and that he’d like to let the Brown community know once a perpetrator is identified and addressed by the University.
“We are completely aligned with the idea that a person who causes harm to others in this community and elsewhere should be held accountable,” he concluded. “No one should walk out without accountability for that.”
Aaron Lash Jr., the residence coordinator for the neighborhood that includes Brown, emailed Brown residents Saturday evening after the meeting with Blackshear. Lash was out of town on Saturday and ordered a mandatory meeting for Brown residents on Wednesday, March 24 “to discuss the internal and external harm caused by someone’s insensitive choice to display their opinion inappropriately.”
“The way this action was displayed on the third floor is unacceptable, and I have a responsibility to address choices/behaviors that can cause other residents to feel a sense of anger or fear in a place that we all share space in,” Lash wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle.
‘It just seems like no one cares’
Manns wrote that he felt “shocked but ultimately unsurprised” when he first saw the posters in the Brown GroupMe.
“I was initially in disbelief that the person responsible for something so blatantly racist could potentially be someone I have spent these past months living under the same roof as. For this to happen mere feet down the hall from where I sleep, I felt unsafe and unwelcomed in my own dorm,” Manns wrote in an email.
Gonzalez and her friend Mitchelle Mojekwu, another first-year, discussed things they felt like they could do in response. They considered a protest but realized they could not do so given COVID-19 safety guidelines. Gonzalez said that the Class of 2024 GroupMe chat proposed emailing Blackshear asking him to take action, but she “[doesn’t] think anything will come from that.”
Gonzalez recalled a 2018 incident, when an anti-Black slur was written on the sign of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. She remembered hearing from others that there “wasn’t really much action taken by the Duke community,” besides Black students “celebrating their Blackness and dancing and sharing stories.”
“This is really upsetting because they bring people to this school, they have all these Zooms saying, ‘We support you,’ ‘We condemn this, that and the other,’ but then something like this happens and we’re still waiting for action, or we’re still seeing things being allowed,” Gonzalez said.
Mojekwu agreed with Gonzalez, telling The Chronicle that “a lot of [Black, Indigenous and person of color] students, specifically Black students in this situation, feel like there’s no one to talk to and there’s no one sticking up for them.”
Mojekwu said that she didn’t like how “none seemed as enraged as they should have been or like they didn’t want to take action towards it.” She feels that mostly only Black students are currently sharing their outrage about the incident while “not many people are feeling anything.”
She also recalled that a little while ago, a big argument broke out in the Class of 2024 GroupMe about COVID-19 violations and that it turned “nasty.” Everyone was involved in that discourse, she said, but feels people are now shying away from this discussion.
“It just seems like no one cares. Where are you guys? Where are you guys who were talking about COVID-19, who were talking about this issue and that issue?,” Mojekwu said. She noted that while she saw a lot of allies to the Black community during the summer at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, “it all just seems really performative” to her now that her peers aren’t speaking out against what occurred in Brown.
Manns wrote that he couldn’t speak to what was going on in the Class of 2024 GroupMe because he is not in it but that he “left the chat long ago for the same reason why my peers are expressing frustration now.”
He added that he is “exhausted” and has contemplated going home since the incident.