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The relevance of race

The following was excepted from the convocation address titled “What
Kind of Freedom” given by Duke University President Nannerl O. Keohane
on Aug. 28.

Last spring, at Duke, there was a set of events that focused
everybody’s attention on a topic that many people at this university
and on other campuses don’t spend a lot of time thinking about,
although some people think about it almost all the time. That sounds
like a riddle, and it is. What is this mysterious thing that is almost
invisible to some folks, and painfully obvious to others, in the same
community? The answer is race.

Let me give you some context here. First the particulars about the
events of last spring. Two student publications published stories about
workers and students that many members of our community, but
particularly African-Americans, found offensive or egregiously
insensitive. But the central event was the improper arrest, by two Duke
police officers, of a male African American student who was mistakenly
identified as a burglar. Our police chief promptly investigated the
incident, sanctioned the officers. and apologized to the student – as
did I – on behalf of the entire community. Compelled by an
understandable and deep sense of injury, African American students held
a silent vigil outside Duke Chapel, and concerned Black faculty members
wrote a thoughtful letter to me about the implications of this incident
for Duke.

I, and many other people, have spent a lot of time this summer
discussing ways in which we can all work to make this a more inclusive
community, for everybody here. We’ll continue those conversations this
fall, and I hope that you will join that discussion and the actions
that result from it, with your fresh perspectives on this thorny
question, and your eager optimism as students who want and expect great
things from your university.

In terms of the larger context, you have chosen a university in the
American South, [a region] with an historic legacy of slavery followed
by decades of rigid segregation. The scars of that legacy won’t go away
easily, even as the practices themselves are changed. So race is
relevant here in ways that it may not have seemed relevant in the
societies from which some of you have come – although race anywhere in
this country, and in most other societies today, is far more relevant
than you may have thought growing up. And one of the ways it is
relevant is in daily interactions and experiences in the lives of
everyone of you.

In a national survey of 56,000 students published this month by the
Princeton Review, Duke placed ninth worst among universities for
interaction between students from different backgrounds. I can’t vouch
for any particular ranking – not even the US News and World Reports
announcement that Duke is tied with Yale for third place in their list
of the nation’s best universities for undergraduate education. But the
Princeton Review finding is sobering. And it fits with our perception
of the problem here on campus. This is a problem that you can solve, by
your own interactions with each other….

With your help, [we hope to] wipe out [the] perception that Duke
students don’t interact very much with one another…. The good news is
that precisely because race is so clearly a powerful factor in this
historically Southern region, it is harder to ignore it than it is in
some other places. This makes it, paradoxically, perhaps easier to do
something significant about making connections among people of
different races and ethnic backgrounds. That’s what we want to do here
at Duke, with a breathtaking kind of boldness.

One of Duke’s most distinguished faculty members, Professor John
Hope Franklin, has been asked by President Clinton to head a national
commission on race. This gives us at Duke, an incredible opportunity to
take leadership in this area, to support Dr. Franklin’s endeavors and
to strive to be a model of the kind of change that is needed to turn
race into a source of rich variety in our culture rather than a source
of deep division and a scourge….

Don’t Forget About Class

You may not have thought much about differences based on class
before, but I encourage you to do so at Duke. Notice how people are
stereotyped by their language or their clothes and watch yourself when
you begin to gravitate only to those who look and sound a lot like you.
Notice, too, how people in the workplace are treated differently
according to their jobs.

I encourage you to stop occasionally and reflect that folks who are
serving your meals and cleaning up after your parties and mowing the
grass are making a much bigger direct difference in your quality of
life than those of us behind a big desk in the administration building,
and treat them with gratitude and respect for what their contribution
to this place means to you each day….

You have so many gifts, of intelligence, promise, ardent loving
support from family, friends, teachers who care about you. Wear these
gifts lightly, but do not spurn them. Become your own person at Duke,
but remember that you can never be a person all by yourself and step
back occasionally to notice what kind of person you are becoming.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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