Ignorance or Bigotry?

Duke punishes, but lets return to campus, the student who placed a noose on a tree. In student's apology, he claims ignorance of the meaning of a noose -- an explanation that only some on campus accept.

May 4, 2015
Noose discovered at Duke in April.

Duke University announced Friday that the student who left a noose on a tree in April, unsettling the campus, had done so out of "ignorance and bad judgment." While the student has received a sanction from the university, Duke will allow the student to return next semester.

The university also published an apology from the student (whose name has not been revealed). The apology has suggested to some on campus that the student is from outside the United States. Duke declined to comment on the background of the student. However, sources with knowledge of the situation said that the person in question was indeed an international student.

The debate about Duke's response to the noose incident and the racial climate at the university has continued with Friday's announcement. Some on campus, noting that various colleges in recent weeks have expelled students responsible for racial slurs, have questioned why Duke isn't doing the same. Others, believing the student to be from outside the United States, have argued that more leniency is appropriate since it is possible such a student might not associate the noose with violent racism against black people.

In the apology from the student, released by Duke, he says that he explained to the university and law enforcement officials how and why he created the noose: "I told them the sequence of events whereby something that I made out of a piece of yellow cord I found, for what I considered at the time to be innocent fun, was instead taken for something so terrible. My purpose in hanging the noose was merely to take some pictures with my friends together with the noose, and then texting it to some others inviting them to come and 'hang out' with us -- because it was such a nice day outside. If there was ever a pun with unintended consequences -- this was certainly one. In addition, when I left I carelessly forgot the noose hanging on the tree for the rest of the afternoon and the evening rather than discarding it, as I should have."

The student says that his actions "led -- completely justifiably -- to the student demonstrations, and the school’s expression of disgust of my actions." As he witnessed the uproar, he writes, he came forward to administrators and told them what happened, and left the campus.

In his apology, the student describes reading (after the fact) about how people in the United States view a noose. In explaining how he could not have known such facts beforehand, he writes that he acted because of his "lack of cultural awareness and joking personality." Later in the apology, he says that he was unaware of the meaning of the noose in the South "because of my background and heritage." He does not specify his background.

Some black students at Duke are questioning why the university is apparently accepting the apology at face value and not taking a position that hanging a noose on a tree is inherently wrong. They note that Duke's president and provost, the day the noose was found on campus, sent out a campus email denouncing “cowardly acts of hatred.” About 1,000 people attended a rally at Duke that day to condemn whoever had placed the noose on the tree. (See photograph at right.)

Henry L. Washington, a black student at Duke, published an open letter Saturday in response to the university's announcement that it was treating the noose incident as a case of a lack of awareness, not malice. Playing off the Duke administrators' statement about "acts of hatred," the headline on the open letter is: "Did You Change Your Mind?"

"Did a student’s proclamation of their cultural incompetency serve to render what you had previously thought to be a cowardly act of hatred to be a simple lapse in judgment?" asks Washington.

"This administrative announcement and this astonishingly lax sanction for a student, whose apology letter clearly rearticulated his or her lack of understanding for the significance of the act, are three additional slaps in the faces of black students and their allies. I am profoundly disappointed in what appears to be the university’s decision to release an announcement declaring that racism was not involved in the hanging of the noose alongside such an ill-considered, audacious and problematic apology. With such a presentation, you may have delegitimized the claims of our outcries. It may appear that you have actually disregarded black students’ concerns. As it stands, you are setting a precedent that any act of racism or prejudice enacted against a minority student at Duke, no matter how serious, may be excused as long as that student’s supposed intention was rooted in a lack of proper judgment and not in racism."

The appropriate punishment for the use of racist slurs or bigoted symbols has become a heated topic on many campuses this semester. The University of Oklahoma expelled two students for leading a fraternity in singing a racist song, an incident that was captured on video. But some have questioned whether college leaders -- especially at public colleges and universities, which are covered by the First Amendment -- are making themselves vulnerable to lawsuits by acting as quickly as they are.

And while Duke is being criticized by some black students for accepting the idea that the motive for the noose may not have been a racist one, George Washington University is being criticized for bringing charges against a student who placed a swastika on a bulletin board -- without considering that student's motive. The university has said that intent does not matter with regard to a swastika being a hateful symbol, but the swastika in question was from India and the student wanted to discuss how a peaceful symbol of Eastern religions had turned into a symbol of hate.


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