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