Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Relevance of Race

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Relevance of Race

Article excerpt

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. …

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