Racial Diversity and Elite Educational Institutions: Duke's Meltdown


Although Michael B. Nifong is out of prosecuting the Duke non-rape, non-kidnapping, and non-sexual assault case, the monster remains in the hands of the entity that helped to make it a monster: the State of North Carolina. Thus, Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans are not safe until someone finally drives a stake into the heart of this thing, but that moment surely is coming, although I might add that it cannot come soon enough.

In one sense, this could have happened anywhere. False rape accusations have landed men into prison before, and college campuses tend to be ground zero of the "take back the night" culture in which all Caucasian men are considered to be rapists or about-to-become-rapists and secret members of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, I would add that the volatile mix of people at an elite university like Duke is a much more fertile ground for a major hoax than would be a typical lower-tier state university. There is a special situation at these types of institutions that plays well to the kind of moral theater we have witnessed this past year.

To further stress this subject, I first need to point out some the social and academic dynamics of an elite university like Duke. Like many other academically elite universities, Duke’s student body is overwhelmingly white and Asian. (The dominance of Asian students is a relatively new phenomenon, as they tended to be excluded in the past, as well as non-white students.) Once upon a time, the demographics of the students did not bother the powers that be at elite institutions. Some, like Duke until 1961, did not admit blacks at all, while others admitted them, but did not have very many black applicants and even fewer black students.

To many, the situation at that time was lamentable but not a cause for action. The institutions like the Ivy League colleges and universities would accept blacks whose grades and test scores qualified them for the extremely competitive admissions process, and they generally were proud of their black graduates, many of whom did well beyond their college years.

The cultural revolution, combined with the civil rights movement, both of the 1960s, changed how the people at elite institutions looked at themselves. Before the "revolution," people at these colleges and universities took some pride in the status that came with their institutions, but that would change, as they were accused of racial and sexual discrimination, and the dearth of blacks and women on campus or on the faculty was prima facae evidence of racism and sexism, no matter what the actual reasons might have been.

Thus, the push was on to bring up the numbers of black students and faculty members, but the elite institutions faced problems that lower-level colleges and universities did not: increasing their numbers of minority students and faculty without compromising their traditional admissions and hiring standards. Unfortunately, it was impossible for these institutions not to compromise their long-held standards, so they simply went ahead with increasing their numbers while claiming at the same time that they were acting either on "merit" or that they were operating on "non-racist" standards.

The way that the elite universities did this was to raid the next tier of universities. Thus, minority students who might do well at a selective place like Boston College suddenly found themselves being recruited by Harvard and Yale. Likewise, blacks with newly-minted doctorates were finding the higher-paying, higher-status colleges and universities were more likely to recruit them for their faculties.

There clearly was a problem, however, and it dealt with the numbers. The pool of qualified black faculty members was — and is — small compared to whites, Asians, and people from the Middle East (qualified means having an earned doctorate from an accredited university). In my profession, economics, only about 40 percent of those receiving doctorates in any given year actually are from the United States, and the vast majority of them are white. This is a very good situation for those blacks who do earn doctorates in economics, as their chances for landing a well-paying job are going to be good, since many institutions of higher learning are going to compete for their services.

Unfortunately, not all economics faculties that would like to fill an opening with a black applicant can do so; as a result, most faculties are dominated by people from white, Asian, and Middle Eastern ethnic groups. That is a hard fact of life, not a situation that is due to racist attitudes or hiring practices, no matter what the critics might say.

But such hard facts still do not mitigate the problem that elite universities face. They want more black faculty members; they need more black faculty members, so they permitted the creation of new disciplines in order to "solve" that problem. Thus, on most campuses — and especially at the elite universities — there are entire departments devoted to things like "African-American Studies," "Women’s Studies," or "African Studies." These academic areas did not exist a few decades ago, but have become popular, especially with administrators who are pressured to keep up their numbers of black professors.

A real quandary exists, however, and that is that these particular areas of study are based upon historical racism and sexism in society, and that such "isms" must be kept alive in order to legitimate them. In other words, it is not enough to deal only with historical racism, such as the Jim Crow era or black chattel slavery. Every speck of current racism must be discovered, exposed, and magnified, and if none can be found, it can be created.

For example, any number of college campuses have been the site of "racist" attacks that later were found to be contrived, something I pointed out a while back in looking at what I call "Reichstag Fires" on college campuses. Furthermore, I noted that Duke’s latest episode of angst was another rendition of that famous fire, and the nonsense is not limited to Duke. A few years ago at the prestigious Claremont Colleges, a social psychology professor, Kerri Dunn, returned from a free speech rally to find her car windshield smashed and "nigger lover" and other such things spray-painted on her car.

Naturally, the campus erupted in mass rallies, where people expressed fear at the racism that was engulfing their beloved campus. However, police and the FBI (yes, the FBI was called to investigate) soon discovered that the perpetrator of this "hate crime" was none other than Dunn herself, who had done the damage before the rally began. (Unfortunately for her, bystanders witnessed the vandalism and told investigators what they saw. Thus, Claremont’s Reichstag Fire went out quickly.)

To make matters worse for those who need to perpetuate the racism industry, elite colleges and universities are far less likely to have the various racist yahoos that might slip into a class or two at a local junior college. (Note to junior college professors everywhere: Don’t take this personally, please.) However, in order to make their area of study legitimate, these professors must constantly be on the lookout for incidents that can be blown up into moral theater.

Lucky for these various "studies" faculty, elite campuses are full of "guilty" whites who either are political radicals themselves or experience the guilt of being intelligent and well-rounded enough to be a highly-paid faculty member or administrator of such an institution. Furthermore, any attempt to disagree publicly or even privately with the "studies" faculty is likely to result in the miscreant being criticized in print and finding it difficult to receive promotions and raises.

Duke’s various "studies" programs were well-known and the campus had put together a faculty that was famous in that area. Even though these faculty members are well-paid and receive accolades from some colleagues and the administration, nonetheless they are paid to be unhappy. Many of their academic writings center either on institutional racism or their own experiences, and those experiences almost always are bad.

The problem for them is that it is very difficult to find real live racists at places like Duke (or Harvard, or any of the other elite institutions). Thus, racists must be created, and the campus must always be on alert in case the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan suddenly were to appear.

When news of the infamous lacrosse party broke and the word was out that Crystal Mangum had accused the white members of the team of gang-raping her, that was all the "isms" faculty needed as proof that their very lives were in danger. English Professor Houston Baker (who now graces the campus at Vanderbilt University) led the charge, writing in a letter to the Duke Administration:

How many mandates concerning safe, responsible campus citizenship must be transgressed by white athletes’ violent racism before our university’s offices of administration, athletics, security, and publicity courageously declare: enough!

How many more people of color must fall victim to violent, white, male, athletic privilege before coaches who make Chevrolet and American Express commercials, athletic directors who engage in Miss Ophelia-styled “perfectly horrible” rhetoric, higher administrators who are salaried at least in part to keep us safe, and publicists who are supposed not to praise Caesar but to damn the unconscionable … how many? Before they demonstrate that they don’t just write books, pay lip service, or boast of safe citizenship … but actually do step up morally, intellectually, and bravely to assume responsibilities of leadership for such citizenship. How many?

How soon will confidence be restored to our university as a place where minds, souls, and bodies can feel safe from agents, perpetrators, and abettors of white privilege, irresponsibility, debauchery and violence?

Actually, the only violence that came from this was the violent reaction of the Duke University community against the lacrosse players, as players received threats from students and faculty alike, not to mention from other people living in Durham. Many of the lacrosse players left the campus in the last month of school because of threats on their lives.

Not to be outdone by Baker, 87 other faculty members signed an advertisement in the April 6, 2006, Duke Chronicle in which they thanked the protesters who were openly calling the lacrosse players "rapists" and demanding "confessions" from them. The infamous advertisement basically declared Duke University to be the second coming of the University of Mississippi when James Meredith showed up on campus in 1962. (Click on the link in the document to find the original advertisement.) The vast number of the signees came from the "studies" areas such as African American Studies and Women’s Studies. Among other things, the advertisement quoted students at Duke who said things like:

“Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism.” “We go to school with racist classmates, we go to gym with people who are racists… It’s part of the experience.” “Being a big, black man, it’s hard to walk anywhere at night, and not have a campus police car slowly drive by me” “…No one is really talking about how to keep the young woman herself central to this conversation, how to keep her humanity before us… She doesn’t seem to be visible in this.”

“We’re turning up the volume in a moment when some of the most vulnerable among us are being asked to quiet down while we wait.”

Even as the case is falling apart, however, most of the faculty members who signed the original document have lent their names to a new statement, one that justifies what they said before:

As a statement about campus culture, the ad deplores a “Social Disaster,” as described in the student statements, which feature racism, segregation, isolation, and sexism as ongoing problems before the scandal broke, exacerbated by the heightened tensions in its immediate aftermath. The disaster is the atmosphere that allows sexism, racism, and sexual violence to be so prevalent on campus. The ad’s statement that the problem “won’t end with what the police say or the court decides” is as clearly true now as it was then. Whatever its conclusions, the legal process will not resolve these problems.

The ad thanked “the students speaking individually and…the protesters making collective noise.” We do not endorse every demonstration that took place at the time. We appreciate the efforts of those who used the attention the incident generated to raise issues of discrimination and violence.

There have been public calls to the authors to retract the ad or apologize for it, as well as calls for action against them and attacks on their character. We reject all of these. We think the ad’s authors were right to give voice to the students quoted, whose suffering is real.

Therefore, if this latest document is to be believed, Duke University is a living hell for black faculty and black students. Racism runs unchecked; women are raped; students face intimidation at every turn, and their lives are governed by fear.

Yet, in modern times, I seriously doubt that one — one — black student or faculty member at Duke University (or any other college or university in this country, elite or lower-tier) ever has faced what the lacrosse players faced each day during that terrible time last spring on the Duke campus. A few years ago, a black member of the Duke basketball team was accused of rape (a false charge, but a charge nonetheless), yet he never had to face signs on campus openly calling for him to be castrated.

Indeed, Duke was an unsafe place — a dangerous place — for some young men who engaged in behavior that was no different than what other students at Duke have done: have a party with drinking and hire strippers. (I am not endorsing either, but neither do I believe that what they did was a Crime Against Humanity, as so many at Duke seem to be saying.)