As I was putting together last Friday’s post about the challenges faced by Duke Law School in recruiting minorities, I had this Gchat conversation with former ATL editor and Duke alum, Kashmir Hill (paraphrased and annotated in various places):
KASH: Good post. But one issue: there are actually a lot of black people living in Durham.
ELIE: Not to pull a Nifong but I don’t think I’ll get a lot of blowback by suggesting Durham isn’t a bastion of racial harmony.
KASH: Yes, there are tensions, but there are a lot of African-Americans who live in Durham.
ELIE: And it’s certainly not a ‘black city’ like Atlanta or anything.
KASH: Yes, but a lot of black people live there. I’d change it.
ELIE: You’re missing the point. The point is whether or not Durham is a welcoming place for blacks.
KASH: But you wrote that there “aren’t a lot of brothers in Durham,” and there are.
ELIE: For Christ’s sake, I’m not saying no black person has ever set foot in Durham. I’m saying that Durham isn’t a black city. Maybe it looks like a black city to white people who get freaked out when they see two brothers on a corner, but it’s not a black city.
KASH: Maybe it looks like a white city to people freaked out by cold, hard demographic statistics.
ELIE: [increasingly annoyed]: Look, NOBODY is going to give me s**t for a throwaway line that’s a segue from a Chris Rock joke to the larger point I’m trying to make. It’s one line in a 1500-word post. Come on.
KASH: [remembering/enjoying that she no longer has to work with me]: Just saying dude… lots of black people in Durham.
350-plus comments, numerous emails, and a boatload of tweets later, it appears that I was wrong. Dead wrong. Much to my surprise, people were very invested in the “but Durham has black friends” argument.
Fair enough. There are a lot of black people living in Durham, and I was wrong to suggest anything else. Next time I want to hang out with a bunch of black people, instead of going to Atlanta or Zimbabwe, I’ll go to Durham, North Carolina. Happy?
Now that I’ve accepted that Durham has a healthy population of African-Americans, can we get back to the discussion about whether or not black people actually want to live there? Because the people at Duke Law School seem to think that Durham is holding them back when it comes to minority recruitment, and I doubt that quoting demographic data is really what prospective minority law students are looking for…
I only even brought up a discussion about the racial makeup of Durham because Duke itself brought it up, in its questionnaire to its minority students. Clearly the Duke administration is worried that the perceptions of Durham (fairly or unfairly) contribute to the law school’s troubles when it comes to recruiting minorities. Many of the emails I received (the ones I can print, the ones I don’t have to send to the FBI) argued the pro-Durham point from this angle:
Did you know that Branford Marsalis lives in Durham? He is one of the most outspoken, uncompromising individuals in America. And he’s black (duh). Durham has a huge black community, I would think that that would be a draw to African-American students. I can think of about 100 law schools that are in much whiter places. I can’t speak to the campus life, but the city of Durham is absolutely NOT anti-black.
Well, obviously potential minority law students don’t think that Durham is a draw. And I say “obviously” because (again) Duke itself evidently thinks that Durham is part of its minority recruitment problem.
Look, there’s a reason the “I have black friends” argument rarely works when it comes to changing the mind of actual minorities. I know it’s hard for some people to understand, but minorities really don’t think as a monolithic group. And many minorities don’t give a damn about what other minorities happen to be doing with their lives. Lots of black people live in Durham? Okay. In other news, lots of white people live in Montana. Does the fact that Montana boasts a large population of white people make top law students want to go to law school in Montana? Of course not. So why would anybody assume that a number of black people physically living in a place would be a particularly strong selling point to minority law schools recruits?
Oh, but does a lot of black people living in a city create a presumption that the city at issue is a place of racial tolerance? Hardly. For generations, American blacks have lived in places that were openly hostile to racial tolerance. During some periods and in certain places (think the Jim Crow south), blacks lived in hostile places in quite large numbers. Other minorities have done the same thing (you think Muslims living in NYC post 9/11 are happy about the state of race relations up here?). Not every minority puts racial tolerance at the top of their list of “things they are looking for in a town.”
Which is not to say that Durham is a racist place. But the facts that the city has a healthy (though still in the minority) population of blacks really doesn’t speak to the issue. At all. Especially not from the perspective of a minority law student who can chose to live in Durham or someplace else.
Moving on, another raft of emailers felt I was blaming Durham for minority recruitment problems that should be laid at the doorstep of Duke itself:
The problem I think is at part a result of the administration. In order to maintain Duke’s non-profit status, despite the money it rakes in from Iron Duke’s and basketball, Duke buys up the property around the campus. This has led to sky-rocketing property costs and the African American community largely moving out of affluent areas into the bad parts close to downtown Durham which Duke doesn’t want. They in essence are carving out zones of gentrified areas and funneling the poor into bad neighborhoods…
I feel that you may have misbalanced the relative fault in favor of the University at the expense of the Durham community.
I’m not blaming anybody. As I said in the initial post, I think that Duke’s reputation as an unwelcoming place for minorities is probably unfair. But making hairsplitting distinctions between Duke and Durham isn’t really going to change the mind of a prospective law student. Nearly every college town has issues with the university it is home to. But when you are applying to school, it’s really not worth it to get into town/gown tensions. When I say Ann Arbor, you say Michigan; when I say Cambridge, you say Harvard; when I say Austin, you say Texas. The fight between townies and academic administrations isn’t particularly relevant when you are looking at recruiting new students to a school.
And Duke/Durham has a problem recruiting minorities. It’s an objective fact. And you can’t give me the silly argument some commenters tried to roll with that Duke has low minority enrollment because it can’t find “qualified” minorities to admit. Yale manages to get minorities to go there; Harvard and Stanford don’t have this problem. I don’t see UCLA or even Texas Law fretting over minority recruitment.
In my initial post, I actually applaud Duke’s effort to address its problem. The comments and the vitriol from Duke defenders do the school a disservice. It sounds to me like the people who popped up to defend Duke don’t actually want the law school to change the way it recruits minorities. They want Duke to be able to keep doing whatever it has been doing and have minorities somehow magically look at the law school in a different light. I understand the impulse. I want to keep eating whatever I want and magically lose weight. But that plan is not really working out for me. Similarly, Duke defenders can scream all they want that Duke/Durham is “not racist” and a great place for minorities. They can call up minority recruits and scream “I LOVE BLACK PEOPLE” into the phone, Jerry Maguire style. They can object — I’m sorry, strenuously object — every time somebody questions the racial tolerance of the school.
But that’s not going to change the mind of large numbers of prospective minority law students. The perception that Duke is unwelcoming to minorities is out there, and screaming that the perception is unfair isn’t going to change a lot of minds. As I said in the first post, it took Duke 100 years to earn this reputation; it might take a little bit of time for Duke to shake it.
The only way you’re going to change people’s minds is to have more people like this commenter, a person who claims he’s a black man:
Elie, you don’t know what the hell you are talking about. I’m black. I attended Duke Law. [Commenter extensively quotes his resume.] There’s nothing wrong with Duke Law that isn’t wrong with the rest of the United States. [Commenter catalogs how crappy it is to be black in America.] As for Durham, [commenter defends Durham]. So if none of the sisters at the law school will date you, you can always go off campus. [Good to know!] And, as for the faculty and administration, they are incredibly supportive and have a number of AA professors who actually know and spend time with each of the students there. [More love expressed for commenter's law profs.] Your article is full of ill-conceived stereotypes and puts truth in the statement that black people are never happy.
The stereotypes about Duke Law, properly conceived or not, were exactly the point of the post. The stereotypes are precisely what the administration is trying to fight against. I didn’t make up the stereotypes. If the stereotypes are untrue, then Duke needs more people (white, black, Hispanic, other) carrying the message, word-of-mouth style, to their friend group.
Because right now, that’s not happening. What’s happening is that minority law students who could go to Duke Law School are in large numbers choosing to go other places, places that they perceive as more racially tolerant. If Duke defenders want to change that perception, they’re going to have to do a little more than quote population statistics and argue that Duke is “no worse” than anyplace else.
They’re going to have to give minority applicants a positive reason for attending the law school, as opposed to some other place without the history and stigma of racial tension. I’m still waiting to read that argument.
If you are a minority student at Duke Law School or a minority graduate of Duke Law School who thinks that the school’s reputation is undeserved, please shoot me off an email. If Duke’s reputation is going to change, it has to start with you.