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Yesterday’s fear-mongering DukeAlert is indicative of the University’s failed attempts to address racial inequity

letter to the editor

At 12:24 pm on September 27th, 2022, as I sat in class, a DukeAlert pinged nearly every computer in the room. A few of us glanced away from the discussion we were having and read the email.

The headline read “Strong-Armed Robbery,” which gave me pause. This was not a typical DukeAlert revealing busted pipes, dryers that caught fire, or parking citations.

So I continued reading. (I must now apologize to professor Jaki Shelton Green because my attention had left our conversation.) The event had happened on Pettigrew Street. The street outside the building I was sitting in; the street I take home. As I read through the sterile recounting of what could truly be a traumatizing experience–assault and grand theft auto–I searched for the description.

Mid-page, the email read: "The suspect is described as a male, medium-dark skin tone, late 20s, dreadlocks with a black bandana, black hoodie and blue jeans. He did not display a weapon and took the victim's car." 

Pause again. Reread the description, looking for any information hinting towards someone we could actually look out for: an eye color, a tattoo, facial features. There were none.

I turned to my friend, who was also scrolling through the update, and said: "With this description, this is going to be a damn witch hunt."

After class, I made sure each of my peers had someone to walk home with, and after dropping two of them at the quad on East, I started my walk home. Which I intentionally rerouted to avoid Pettigrew street. As I made my way across campus and down Ninth street, I saw three people who easily fit the vague description, courtesy of the Durham Police Department.

"Y'all be safe," I mumbled under my breath.

At 4:27 pm my email pinged again with another DukeAlert, which read: "Following the DukeAlert notification earlier this afternoon, Campus Police investigators have worked with the Durham investigator to determine that the report of a strong-armed robbery on Pettigrew St. yesterday was unfounded. There was no robbery or theft."

The word “unfounded” jumped from the page and lodged itself in my chest. Let me pause here to provide clarification on the adjective "unfounded." Unfounded means the bottom has fallen out, it is nullified. There is no evidence to support that what has been said is true. Some examples:

Unfounded: you see someone poking around a window, and you assume he is breaking in when in fact, he may be washing the windows.

Unfounded: you see something dark and gray filling someone's pocket, and you think it may be a gun, but, in all actuality, it is a calculator.

Unfounded, which is often drenched in racial stereotyping and bias, reads as a mistake, an accident. Unfounded is the utterance of "I wasn't sure and wanted to be safe."

Unfounded is a weapon. The same weapon used to kill Trayvon Martin for the Skittles he had stuffed in his black hoodie. The same weapon that met Tamir Rice when he raised the fake gun at the wrong person and led to the Cleveland Police slaying him. The same weapon that fueled the suspicion of a counterfeit bill that led to George Floyd murdered in the street of Minneapolis, the world watching him for over nine minutes as his life was choked out of him. Unfounded, to be without foundation or fact, is an unfair assumption, based on the beholder’s interpretation of an event.

The initial DukeAlert was not “unfounded,” it was fabricated. It was a lie. And this lie, written off as "unfounded," is an exact representation of why Duke's tepid attempts to address racial inequity have fallen flat. The fact that a student at this "prestigious" university could cry wolf on an imaginary perpetrator that they crafted from the racist archetype of the "dangerous Black man," their own fictitious reimagining of Wille Horton, and all that is said in response to this condemning lie was that it is “unfounded,” represents how accountability at the institution is something reserved for headlines to the public and not actual initiatives taken to halt harmful racist systems that persist at this University to this day.

This problem cannot be addressed by a quick survey of Black students on campus, President Price's "Eye Toward a Brighter Future", or a Black-owned coffee shop erected after that noose swung from Bryan Center. The noose has been hung. The emails have been sent. The "Dangerous Black Man" has been summoned.

Duke’s initiatives to address racial inequality will continue to fall short unless they truly take action to address the inequities that exist on campus—part of which would be the public condemnation of this racially motivated lie that immediately implicated any Black man above 25 who wears his hair locked, and may have been near campus.

The fact that Duke police, before fully investigating this false accusation, publicized the fabricated description that could easily have fit hundreds of Black men living in Durham County must be reckoned with. Duke police and the Durham Police Department must be held accountable for their rushed attempts to criminalize many a Black man without taking any initiative to confirm that the accusations were true.

Duke University shall admit that the DukeAlert sent out prematurely is a product of racism and harm that could have led to the jailing, beating, or murdering of a Black man in our community. They should admit that this alert, filled with racial castigation and falsified statements of felonious charges, is in fact a product of delayed initiatives to target racial inequity on this campus.

Duke University must stand in solidarity against this forged attempt to harm Black community members and denounce this behavior, reprimand this student, and present actionable steps against allowing the dissemination of racially chauvinistic rhetoric to be shared, like that which was released yesterday.

Yesterday's DukeAlert is something that should weigh heavily on the minds of the Duke community. That should have given every single one of us pause. And that should serve as an intimation to begin addressing the racial inequity that is alive and well on Duke's campus and within the structure of the University. For without this condemnation, without this solidarity, without action, the fate of many Black students on this campus will lie in the hands of the deceiver who claims they were harmed by any Black man or person and be believed.

Tashia Ethridge is a Duke junior.


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