We’ve seen these tensions bubble up recently: Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore and the ensuing riots. The shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston. Racist chants by a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. Even the suspicious death of Jesus Huerta in the back of a police cruiser in Durham, NC.
Last month, a noose found hanging from a tree on Duke’s campus threatened to become another painful incident in this series. Fortunately, students and administrators mobilized quickly and a student came forward quickly to accept responsibility.
But, when the student’s apology letter hit the news a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had, in fact, avoided the crisis.
The student claimed the noose was part of an innocent joke on friends, and that he or she was unaware of the “historical connotations.”
This apology letter left me scratching my head in confusion and shaking my head in dismay.
Now, my purpose is not to berate the University (although I still have quite a bit of frustration left over from basketball season). Nor is it to verbally flog the student for his or her professed ignorance.
But if this apology letter was true – and I have no reason to believe it wasn’t – a student at one of the most prestigious universities in the nation was unaware of the historical significance of a noose hanging from a tree. This student was apparently unacquainted with this country’s painful history of lynching.
That is a striking condemnation of our education system – up and down – as well as our responsibilities as a society. That Duke could release that letter without an apology of its own was almost shocking to me. Clearly, the university, along with a number of other institutions, has failed this student – and too many of this generation.
Our children have to be taught about this part of our history, mortifying though it may be. We simply cannot sweep this under the rug.
Thousands of black Americans were killed in lynchings from the late 18th century through the 1960s. Groups of whites (the NAACP definition says more than three) would publicly kill and often torture blacks under the guise of “justice.”
It was not justice. It was about power. It was about anger. It was about continuing to exert a culture of fear.
Sadly, those themes are still making the rounds. Just look at Baltimore and Charleston and too many other places.
Our children need to be taught these lessons. They need to understand our history – all of it. It is the only way to ensure that our future is better than our past.