White, Black, and Duke Blue

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If you have ever tried to drive onto the Duke campus on game day for anything other than the game, you probably have some strong feelings about Duke Parking and Transportation Services. I remember trying to get onto campus early last spring. It was my one chance to get to the Divinity library to research for a class assignment. I was stopped and interrogated by the person directing traffic. He finally let me go, but only after giving me a condescending lecture: “Next time, check and see if there is a basketball game before trying to come onto campus…” I was incensed. I drove away muttering, “Last I checked this was a university, not a sports franchise with an incidental library!”

Here’s what I didn’t do: anything that would deny the basic humanity of the person directing traffic. I was not happy with the overall prioritization of sports events at Duke, nor with the way available parking and access to campus has been decreasing over the years. In other words, I had some serious disagreements around campus access policy issues. And I will not deny that I was so angry I couldn’t concentrate until I had sent a couple of friends angry text messages about how perhaps the Divinity school library should just close on game days if they didn’t want the (almost entirely non-residential) Divinity students coming onto campus. But I did not take it out on the (probably contract) employee – in spite of him treating me like a person of dubious intelligence and forethought.

There has been plenty of news from NC of late, so you may have missed this one: some students at Duke are calling for the dismissal of Tallman Trask III, executive vice president of Duke University, because of his abuse of Shelvia Underwood, a woman directing traffic on a football game day. I would say “alleged abuse,” since there’s a lawsuit pending, but he admits that his “conduct fell short of the civility and respectful conduct each member of this community owes to every other.” I should say so. He hit her with his car and then claimed it never happened.

Ms. Underwood (and a witness) say that Trask called her a “dumb n*****.” Trask says that he did not, and that no other witnesses can corroborate Ms. Underwood’s claims about what exact words he shouted rudely at her.

But whether or not he used the n-word, Trask already treated Ms. Underwood as a lesser human being when he began shouting at her at all, when she stopped him from trying to drive down a closed road.

He treated her as less than a human being when he hit her with his Porsche, which he claims to have done by accident. Really? Trask bumping Underwood with his car sounds to me very much like an entitled person used to getting away with things who was acting out because he has learned that he can. It sounds very much like a well paid white man not wanting to accept – even momentarily – the authority of a poorly paid black woman.

There was a further indignity for Ms. Underwood. She was treated as unworthy of consideration by all of the involved individuals at the University (including Trask) when she was pressured into dropping her complaint for the price of an apology note whose generic insincerity rivals that of a 6 year old caught doing something they’re still not sorry for.

The only thing in dispute here is whether or not he used a racial slur. He was rude and impatient, both before and after he hit a working person with his car and tried to get out of it. Don’t get me wrong – it matters a great deal whether he used a racial epithet to diminish the humanity of another person. That would be awful. There are certain words that ought never to be used. But just based on the facts that everyone (even Tallman Trask) agrees on, the students’ demands for Trask to be fired would have some basis.

I don’t have rich or “important” connections, and I don’t bring a lot of money into the university. I have no doubt that if I hit someone with my car on campus while yelling at them, and then kept on yelling at them afterwards, I would have been in serious trouble.

I would like to think that I don’t go around acting like my need to get somewhere is more important than another person’s integrity because I believe that we are all beloved children of God. I hope that I am aware more often than not that I am not more important in God’s eyes than whoever is most annoying me in the moment. I hope that I am stopping when a person is standing in front of my car not because I would get in trouble if I didn’t. But. It does strike me that when a person is treated as if he is inherently more important than other people, then he will start believing it. He will start acting like it. Trask was acting as if he was more important than Ms. Underwood. When he hit her, was Trask seeing Underwood as a nuisance? Or (as he claims) was he failing to see her at all? Either way, he was seeing her no differently than does our dominant culture.  Duke University, the City of Durham, the State of North Carolina, and the United States at large sees the working poor (in comparison to the Porsche drivers), black people (in comparison to white people), and women (in comparison to men) – as a nuisance – when they see them at all.

Trask’s race, gender, and wealth all count for something at Duke. It also counts for something that he has been a part of the financial success of the University and of downtown Durham. It shouldn’t. The only thing that should count for anything here is that one human being treated another human being like she was far less of a human being than he was. Duke President Richard Brodhead and the other folks in charge at Duke University need to decide if Duke is going to continue to be the sort of place where some people are seen and treated as less human than others.

Of course, we need to be careful to see Dr. Trask as a beloved child of God, too. Arguably the Duke administration – and any person who has shielded this man from responsibility for his actions over the years – has denied him the opportunity to grow. Perhaps, if he is sent to his room and made to think about what he has done, there is some hope that he will grow up to be pleasant and responsible, and able to graciously accept those times when he is not the one in control.

You can follow the protest on Twitter by searching #DismantleDukePlantation

Speed bump

It has been a long time since I have written a new blog entry. I have been ill since the end of May. Many days, I am in too much pain to sit upright for longer than 5 minutes at a time.This illness has kept me from doing so many things I had planned to do. I had hoped to take my daughter to the zoo this summer, to reorganize my study, and to prepare to lead a group of Daisy Scouts… and I had planned to devote many hours to writing. Instead, it has been difficult simply to keep up with my correspondence. Impossible really, when you consider that often it takes me an hour to write an e-mail, and I have been receiving 10 or more personal e-mails a week.

What we thought was a minor problem that would soon pass has consumed the summer. It appears that I am going to need surgery, but because of my health history, scheduling surgery is taking some time. So I wait.

It is easy, when I am lying on the sofa (yet again) for my vision to extend no further than my own body. Pain relief, distraction from pain, food, water. When I lift up my eyes, I often don’t lift them very far: my daughter, my husband, the accumulation of e-mails waiting for a reply.

But this illness is not constant. There are good days. And I am learning to take advantage of the good days.

Two weeks ago, I was feeling well enough to drive my daughter to camp at the NC Museum of Life and Science. And after dropping her off at her classroom, I was feeling well enough to stay there and take a walk on the grounds! It had been a long time since I had been able to take a walk alone with God, with no place to get to and no time to be there.

There are so few people at the museum at 9:00 am, and the air was not yet hot enough to be uncomfortable. I was walking, remembering times taking my daughter to the museum when she was younger, and thinking of all the families that visit there every day, when I saw what looked like splotches of mud crossing the asphalt trail.

The words formed in my mind, “Stop. Look closer.” So I did. The trail wasn’t dirty – these were racoon tracks – crossing from the quarry pond to the undergrowth adjacent to the bear enclosure.

My vision zoomed out all at once, dramatically – while I had been in bed the night before, racoons had been gathering and washing their food, turtle eggs were incubating, owls were silently gliding through the sky. Truck drivers were driving, nurses were tending patients at the hospital, mothers and fathers were changing diapers and rocking restless babies back to sleep. As they slept, trees and teenagers were growing taller, and people of all ages were assimilating all they had learned that day. And that was just in Durham! In other parts of the world, my night was not night at all, but day. As I laid down to sleep on the East Coast of the U.S., people in Japan were starting their day: some to work, some to learn, some to play — and some to wait in frustration, ill and unable to do any of these things, just as I had been the week before.

There was so much more to the world than I could see, but as I bent over the raccoon tracks, I was reassured that God sees it all, God holds it all, God knows and loves it all! “Thank you,” I whispered.

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Today is not shaping up to be a low pain day. I wrote part of this with the aid of dictation software, which I am using here for the first time. And I wrote part of it sitting up, which I am really beginning to feel! But I am grateful for the light shining through the leaves of the trees outside my window, reminding me of God’s providential care for all creation – for “all things, seen and unseen.”

 

Durham CAN

It has been brought to my attention that what I have written about politicians in this summer’s Sunday school quarterly could leave some folks with the impression that I don’t believe it is possible for elected officials to act in the public interest.

I could make the excuse that Amos and Micah both are occupied with oracles against the leaders of Judah and Israel. However, their own words are not intended to be a condemnation of any who would govern. Instead, they objected to how these leaders governed. I had not by any means meant to suggest that “politician” and “public servant” are necessarily mutually exclusive terms. Neither do Amos and Micah seem to support the idea that those who would lead are necessarily unjust and self-serving.

So in the midst of the more readily found stories of malfeasance, I would like to share a hopeful example of what community leadership can be: Durham CAN. (“Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods.”)

Last night, my husband joined folks from all over Durham for a meeting convened by Durham CAN. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss plans to make Durham a better place for everyone. Not vague plans, but concrete policy suggestions – specific proposals for affordable housing (including proposed building sites and blueprints), specific proposals for fair paying jobs, and specific proposals for improving police-community relations. Government officials came to the meeting, having already been briefed by Durham CAN (so that they wouldn’t be blind-sided by any of the proposals). They came prepared to share their own commitments with the assembled body. Among those who spoke were Bill Bell (the mayor), Ellen Reckhow (a County Supervisor) and Steve Schewel and Cora Cole-McFadden (members of the City Council.)

My husband came home from the meeting feeling glad that we live in Durham, and feeling actually excited about certain of our elected officials. Excited on the level of, “I can’t wait to vote for that person again. They really do care about _____.”

There are some politicians who do indeed work for “justice for all.” Some of them do it once in awhile, some of them do it more often than not. Praise God! Let us pray that there would be even more of them.