Righteous Witness

John E. Staddon

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University. His most recent books are Scientific Method: How science works, fails to work or pretends to work (Routledge, 2017), and The Englishman: Memoirs of a Psychobiologist (University of Buckingham Press, 2016).


A couple of years ago, Duke University convened a large task force to produce a 69-page Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues, which I discussed on the NAS site.  The report expressed much concern about, but provided little evidence for, an epidemic of hate. On the other hand, bias (by Duke’s definition) may well be widespread, since the report emphasized that a “bias incident” need not be intentional.

Now there is a new report from Duke, this time in response to the battles over politically incorrect monuments and lack of representation for ‘marginalized groups’ in the history of Duke and other historically white and male institutions. The lavishly produced 100-page Activating History for Justice at Duke, funded by the philanthropic Bass family, was constructed by a team of undergraduates, a graduate student, and a faculty member, with several other faculty assisting. It was designed by a local social-justice-oriented studio. It points the way forward for Duke.

The report is a Howard-Zinn-style history of Duke’s racial, gender and LGBTQIA+ people and how they have been neglected in existing publications and monuments. It recommends some additions and deletions. The history is accurate, as far as I can tell, but like Zinn, it relates bad things in detail and skimps on good ones — at least insofar as they reflect any credit on “dominant groups”, i.e. white males.  It is enough to learn that a white man owned slaves at a time when it was customary. What he believed, how he treated them, how they felt about it, are rarely mentioned. All we learn about Duke benefactor Julian Carr (1845-1922), is that he was a “committed philanthropist” but also a “white supremacist” who agreed with his predecessor, president John Calhoun (1782-1850), “that African Americans were better-off enslaved.” Carr and Calhoun, were both intelligent and decent men (by the standards of the time); so what was their case? Nada.  (But Carr Building should be re-named.)

Trinity College president and Methodist minister Braxton Craven (1822-1882) “bought at least three enslaved people, among them at least two children”, which was not usual for the time and his situation. Why? Would they have been better off being bought by someone else? If freed, would they have to leave the South? Again, no lo sé.

On General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), whose statue was first defaced and then removed from the portico of Duke Chapel last year, the report correctly reports his view on slavery as expressed in a letter, that “there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country,” but then relies on revisionist history to let us know how bad a man he really was. Lee conformed to the beliefs of his time and sometimes treated his slaves cruelly. His argument, like Carr’s and Calhoun’s, was that Christian civilization was better for Africans than their own rural, pre-literate cultures. The argument was less obviously wrong then than it is now. Abraham Lincoln himself did not believe that black and white were culturally equal: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Lee’s argument was sincere and of his time. It is of course overshadowed by the great wrong of enslavement. But to be wrong, even very, very, wrong is not necessarily to be evil.

On Washington Duke: At the turn of the twentieth century, “Despite the desire by so many African Americans for education, there is no record that Duke or his sons ever advocated for their admission to Duke.” Neither is there evidence that they didn’t — and there is no evidence either that they advocated for bimetallism, powered flight or votes for children. “[W]e found no evidence that the Dukes publicly supported white supremacy…” But privately: who knows? Innuendo replaces inquiry, but the Report leaves the reader in no doubt that white men are always suspect.

Apropos the role of women: “Often, [a 2003 status-of-women] report noted, women felt pressured to conform to powerful social norms often at odds with their own desires.” So long as norms exist people will feel pressure to conform to them. And what about the women (how many?) who were happy to conform?  And are women happy now? And how happy would they be with no norms at all?

“Only in the 2000s did women’s enrollment draw near equal to men,” says the Report. Now there are more women than men and their grades tend to be higher; shouldn’t that be at least mentioned?

The report makes much of statistical disparities as if, in some utopian future, all groups will be proportionately represented in every walk of life — which is patent nonsense. Why, for example, should it be of the slightest interest that “Women are represented in less than 15 percent of Duke’s sites”? Or that “Seventy percent of Duke’s sites represent white people”.  Should we despair that “no sites representing Latinx members of the Duke community” were found? Most Nobel Prize winners are male, a disproportionate number are Jewish; Hungarians are over-represented.  Should the Nobel committee be urged to make the prizes more reflective of chromosomal structure, give more weight to religious affiliation and country of origin (where are the Buddhists, Moslems, and Ugandans?) — and give less weight to scientific accomplishment?

These statistics are annoyingly irrelevant. Have particular African Americans, or women or people with creative sexual identities made an exceptional contribution to Duke’s mission? Have they been neglected in Duke’s official history? Then make the case based on their contributions, not their identity group. Numerical disparities by themselves have no significance at all.

A few individuals are proposed for remembrance. Many are clearly worthwhile. Mary Semans (1920-2012), Duke Trustee and vigorous philanthropist is obviously a worthy candidate. But Joseph Maytubby, an 1896 Trinity graduate, notable for his heritage in the Chickasaw nation and his election to Mayor of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, seems less obviously deserving.  Chinese Charles Soong, was Trinity College’s first international student, had his tuition paid by Braxton Craven (he who bought slaves, above) and sired daughters who married Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek.  He was an important historical figure — but his inclusion in the list is justified by the “large number of international students who are part of Duke’s community”. Would Soong not be worthy of a statue if Duke had few international students?

Another obvious candidate is an eminent gay writer and teacher Reynolds Price (1933-2011) who was disabled in later life. The report’s chief beef about Price is that his official obituary did not mention his homosexuality, although in my recollection Price made little of it.

A memorial to women’s “fear and anxiety” is proposed, but the scandalous treatment by Duke and the Durham prosecutors of the (white, male) Duke lacrosse players in 2006 is mentioned only as an example of racism.

Another addition might have been faculty member John Spencer Bassett (1867-1926) who was attacked, but not fired, for criticizing racism and saying that Booker T. Washington was “all in all the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in 100 years.” Most students and faculty supported Bassett. After commenting that Bassett thought participation of blacks in politics “nauseating”, the report mentions that a residence hall is named after him. An Appendix suggests a memorial to freedom of speech, without suggesting that Bassett be further commemorated.

The report has a few revelations: Duke’s early history was dominated by white men, with other groups playing only peripheral roles.  Evidently, white men were the main movers in Duke’s history. Who knew!  Is that what the report means by white supremacy? Is Western civilization perhaps a product of white supremacy?

The value system that underlies the report is pretty clear: white = bad; white male = worse; White and gay = not so bad; white woman = good; white lesbian = better; LGBTQIA+ = excellent; black = good; black female = better; black female lesbian = best; Asian = OK. These categories should have no value at all in this discussion. They should be irrelevant to any discussion about who to honor. Yet for the authors of the report they seem to be almost the only thing that matters.

A minor annoyance is that the report trashes tobacco, a risky (not lethal) product that nevertheless funded the university and gave innocent pleasure to millions, most notably those in the “Greatest Generation” who fought WW2.  But it’s all part of a pattern for a university founded on “discrimination against women, LGBTQIA+ and disabled people and people of color”, not to mention “discriminatory labor practices”.  The righteous witnesses see little good in Duke!

Duke is a great southern university organized by Methodists and Quakers. Tiny Trinity College was named just two years before the Civil War and became Duke University in Durham only in 1924.  Slaves played little or no role in Duke’s history. Yet the words slave or slavery occur no less than 288 times in the report. The word academic occurs not at all. The report attempts to present Duke’s history as if slavery was somehow integral to it.

The aim of Activating History for Justice at Duke seems to be to rewrite the history and physical environment of Duke along politically correct identity-politics lines. But history is history and justice is justice. History is the concern of scholars; justice is a matter for the legal system.  Mixing the two makes about as much sense as a project on Gender and Differential Equations or Justice and Arithmetic. (Unfortunately, neither of these is totally far-fetched in the world of identity politics.)

Many of the individuals the report proposes to memorialize are perfectly reasonable. But memorials to Duke’s first labor union, to a slave who may or may not have been owned by Washington Duke, and to a 2001 controversy in the student newspaper ignited by an advertisement critical of reparations for slavery, not to mention several other social-justice causes, seem less appropriate. The report would surely have done better to concentrate on specific recommendations and skip the endless harping on race and gender and meaningless identity statistics.  If history is to be included, at least try and approximate the whole truth, not just the part that excites political activists.

What on earth prompted this passionately one-sided account?  Perhaps an error by Duke’s new president Vincent Price. The report makes much of Price’s quasi-religious urging that students should engage in “righteous witness”. But is it sensible to urge half-educated young people to indulge their convictions before they have learned enough to judge wisely? Is it not likely that they will be swayed by fashion and the mob rather than calm deliberation? It is much easier to signal virtue in the company of the like-minded than to learn calculus or memorize Milton.  President Price was perhaps unwise to urge action and passion before study and reflection.

“Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold”…the inversion of normal and abnormal, central and peripheral, in this report and many others like it, brings Yeats’ words to mind. A generation that is taught to be proud of, for example, disability, has either forgotten what pride means or, more likely, confused pride with sympathy and courage. Pride surely begins with accomplishment, not accident.

This report paints a picture of a university that has become mired in an identity politics which elevates previously condemned groups at the expense of others — others who have in fact been directly responsible for most of what has been achieved by our civilization. If these students do not learn to respect their favored groups without disrespecting everyone else, Duke, like so many other great universities, will soon cease to matter. After all, “Off with their heads!” is the only answer invited by an indictment like Justice for Duke.

Or perhaps all 100 pages should just be responsibly recycled.


Photo:  Duke University by Ilyse Whitney // CC-BY 2.0

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