Duke: Cutting Down Nets and Nooses

“Maybe now they’ll stop hanging nooses off trees on campus…” I read the words just moments after I had added my own throwback photo to the avalanche flooding newsfeeds with Duke alumni’s exuberance over their NCAA win.

In the midst of celebrating Coach K cutting down the net as a symbol of Duke basketball’s dominance, the irony was not lost on many that  those were not the only ropes Duke cut down this week.

My breath caught in my throat. I recognized the emotion that has occurred pretty persistently since I began my masters studies at Duke a decade ago. Conviction. It was the awareness that we do not all experience these things the same way. It was the awareness that for many people Duke is symbolic of privilege. It was the awareness that in some neighborhoods of Durham, including the neighborhood where I lived, they still call Duke “the plantation.” It was the awareness that victories are experienced differently by those who feel empowered by an institution than they are by those who feel oppressed by it.

Duke won. Those same words can mean different things to different people.

I went to Duke. That fact has provided me with many opportunities: the opportunity to have a challenging and fulfilling vocation; the opportunity to celebrate wins during March Madness; and the consistent opportunity to reflect on the deep impact of privilege and racism.

Last week, when examples of racism at Duke once again made headlines in the hanging of a noose, the church universal was celebrating Holy Week. In the Christian calendar that is the week in which we remember that our Lord was captured by a lynching mob; condemned to death although innocent; hung with nails and rope on a tree; choked to death by his inability to get a breath; and left hanging on the tree not only to assert the power of those that had killed him, but also to terrorize those that had loved him and to discourage them from following his revolutionary lead.

Chillingly, that is exactly what so called Christians were doing to African Americans in this country up until a few decades ago. In fact, they were even lighting crosses on fire as a symbol of the fervor of their faith before going to perform a reenactment, seemingly ignorant of the fact that they were not playing the role of Jesus or his disciples, but of those that murdered him. The intense psychological terrorism of leaving a body hanging, daring the family to risk taking it down, did not end with the death of Jesus and the era of crucifixions. Neither, some would argue, did it end with the era of nooses and lynch mobs; it just looks different now.

In September, when friends and I met with law professor Justin Hansford in Ferguson, Missouri, he explained to us that leaving Michael Brown’s body lying in the street for hours, in full view of children and family, achieved the same psychological impact that lynching had in the past. In other words, achieved the same psychological impact that crucifixion had centuries before. In other words, regardless of the intentions or factors, was an act of psychological terrorism on the quiet neighborhood.

Remember that: whenever you hear news of a body left lying in the street; every time you hear that no life saving measures were attempted or offered. The impact of those choices falls not only upon the victim, but rather upon the whole community.

Both crucifixion and lynching serve as a method of reminding people who holds the power and privilege. This is a tactic of maintaining power and privilege through fear. Through reminding the oppressed of the power of their oppressor, psychologically traumatizing onlookers, and squelching any attempts at liberation.

Hanging a noose is a tactic by a fearful oppressor intent on maintaining a sense of superiority and power. It is the act of a coward, striving to stave off the inevitability of recognizing their own weakness; striving to protect their illusion of superiority when faced with an equal.

The fact that a noose was hung last week on Duke’s campus is not the fault of every Duke staff, student and alumni; but it is our responsibility to vocally confront and combat racism in all its forms, and to take the time to listen and understand.

It is our responsibility to be just as willing to say, “I went to Duke” when incidents of racism are reported in the news as we are when victories and causes for celebration and school pride are reported.  It is our responsibility to be just as willing to seize upon the opportunity to discuss the importance of anti-racism speech and actions and the struggles of our institution, as we are willing to seize upon the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our school.

I am encouraged by the swift and clear words of the administration and the student government. On the part of the administration, condemning the act and calling for solidarity. On the part of the student government, making the even more bold statement that Duke as an institution struggles with racism.

The fact that those words need to be stated may seem discouraging to some; yet, the fact that they are being stated so publicly is a sign that perhaps we are making progress, bit by bit.

To my colleagues, this is my prayer for us: May the education that we received in theology help us to grapple with the ancillary education that we received in the dynamics of privilege and oppression. May our calls for justice be just as public, vocal and passionate as our cheers for basketball. May our courage to speak and our humility to listen grow with the passing of the years. And may we be vigilant in our callings so that nets will be the only ropes that need to be cut down on ours or any other campus.

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