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An Open Letter to Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell

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On July 17, we found this statement from our President and Provost buried in “Quad Blog,” an obscure media outlet that few in the Stanford community pay attention to. Entitled, “Concerning Incident on Campus,” it reads, in its entirety:

As many of you have seen in news reports, this weekend Stanford’s Department of Public Safety responded to a report of what was described as a noose near a residence for summer students. We take this matter very seriously, and DPS is currently investigating the incident. If additional evidence comes to light, it may be classified as a hate crime. We would strongly encourage anyone with more information on this incident to contact DPS.

While we await further conclusions from the investigation, we deeply appreciate that a noose is recognized today as a symbol of violence and racism directed against African American people. Such a symbol has no place on our campus. We need to continue to strive for a community in which discrimination and hate have no presence.

We will ensure that our community is updated on the status of the investigation into this very serious matter.

148 words issued a full five days after the noose was found (on Friday, July 12). 148 words, the majority of which is pure boilerplate.

Of these 148 words, only a small portion directly confronts the dire issue at hand — the short passage beginning “we deeply appreciate that a noose is recognized … ” “Deep appreciation” here can only mean “understand fully.” Yet the timing of the statement, the fact that it was hidden in an obscure media outlet (rather than being sent to each and every holder of a Stanford email address), and its lifeless, robotic phrasing which follows, belies that assertion. There is no indication that the administration “deeply appreciates” the situation at all.

Consider, by contrast, a statement delivered in public just a matter of hours after a noose was found at Duke University.

Here is what Duke’s president said:

My friends, I’m Dick Brodhead, and I’m the president of Duke.

This is a beautiful day, and this is a beautiful place. But we are gathered here because something ugly happened on this day and in this place. Duke is a place that is very fun and inspiring in many ways, but something happened today that was dispiriting and depressing in the extreme. You know the news as well as I do. Last night around two o’clock in the morning, a rope noose was found hanging in a tree on the Bryan Center Plaza.

Let me say a few things. One: we don’t know who did that. I hope we will know who did it, and if you have any idea who did it, I hope you will help us find out. There’s been an investigation going on since the middle of the night, and I hope it will come to a clear resolution. Two: we don’t actually know for sure what the person who did this deed had in mind. It might have been the most awful thing one could imagine; maybe somebody thought it was funny; maybe somebody had no idea what this meant to people. In my experience, when you get to the end of the story, things aren’t always exactly as you guessed.

But if there is uncertainty about how this arose, there’s no uncertainty about what that symbol meant to the audience that saw it, or why people had the response they had. A noose hanging in a tree in a Southern state of the United States is a symbol, an allusion to the history of lynching. If you don’t know the history of lynching, let’s take the chance to learn a little bit about it—and please go find out more afterward.

After the end of slavery, other ways were perfected to assure the inferiorization of the Black population in the South, even after this population had won technical legal rights. People were kept from going to equal schools; people had their voting rights repealed. At the extreme, violence was visited on Black bodies. Black people were hung from trees—that’s what a lynching was—through an extrajudicial process. This was not typically a spontaneous community act. Lynchings were often planned and advertised days in advance, and the images of the lynching were circulated widely throughout the community.

Lynching was a way of demonstrating to Black people that violence could be visited on Black bodies at any point—it was visited on some people’s actual bodies—but the circulation of that image was what was really powerful. Seeing this image gives you the message: If you are a person who belongs to a certain category of people, this could happen to you at any time. Black people were made to experience not only the denial of civil rights and of equal standing before the law; they were made to bear the psychic burden of feeling continual vulnerability on grounds of their race.

If anybody didn’t know this history, it would be good to learn it, because otherwise, you can’t explain why this image is so upsetting. This was not simply rope. This was a symbol that evoked the whole legacy of racial oppression in the segregated South. As a person, and as the president of Duke University, I find this symbol and what it symbolizes abhorrent. This university condemns the display of this symbol and repudiates the message that it gave about the kind of place this is. This university repudiates racism in all its forms, as it repudiates every other form of discrimination based on thinking of people as members of abstract categories you can treat as if they are somehow inferior to you.

It wasn’t so long ago that these things were realities in this place. If they are not now, if there’s not a contemporary history of lynching, it’s because people, actual humans, North and South, White and Black, fought and fought, decade after decade, to repudiate the world in which inequality was the law of the land—inequality before the law, inequality of rights and personhood. It was only 52 years ago that Duke accepted its first Black undergraduates. It was only 50 years ago that the Voting Rights Bill was passed in this country. Men and women worked to create a world in which people would not be marked as inferior on the basis of the prejudice and bigotry of the people who felt they had the power to do so.

We fought to make that different world. This university was created in the crucible of that struggle, and we have no intention of going back now. Somebody may think today’s image is a symbol of Duke’s present or future, but that’s not the Duke I know. That’s not the Duke I want. That’s not the Duke I’m here to help build. And as I look at the multitude—what a pleasure for me, to see one thousand faces stretching as far as I can see—you came here for the reason that you want to say, with me: This is no Duke we will accept. This is no Duke we want. This is not the Duke we’re here to experience, and this is not the Duke we’re here to create.

This would be abhorrent if it happened anywhere in the world, but there’s something especially abhorrent about it happening in a university. We who live in universities are inestimably privileged. We get to live a life where our work is to try to improve our understanding of ourselves and the world. And we’re able to do it because we have the greatest of all luxuries: the highest talent brought to us, not from the world we already know, but from every part of the human world—from every country, every race, every community, every origin—brought together so that we can teach each other and learn from each other and open our limited perspectives to benefit from the perspectives of others. But there’s a precondition to having that work successfully. For us to get the benefit of the education that a diverse community embodies, people have to make other people feel safe here. People have to make other people feel welcome here. People have to treat each other as if each other person here has just the right to be here that you do, is here for the same purposes, and is going to be part of a project of education through community.

In the wake of an incident like this, there are things for the administration to do. I do understand that. By chance I met this morning with the leaders of the Black Student Alliance—the appointment had been set up before we ever knew this would happen—and they had suggestions about ways that Orientation programs could be improved. I think those and other suggestions could be very valuable, and we’ll be looking to see how we can implement them. There is a proposal about discussions that could take place in the residential houses on campus; I think that’s a great thing. I would only echo the words of the first speaker here today: learning about our duties to an inclusive community isn’t a vaccine you get once that renders you immune forever. This is an ongoing human challenge, so we all need to keep educating and being educated about its meaning. The Duke administration is committed to work on eliminating all forms of inequality and discrimination at this university.

But I’m also going to call on you, because getting this right can never just be the work of the administration. That isn’t something you can delegate to other people to take care of. It has to be all of our work to make the community all of us want to live in. So as you would be respected, show the respect to others that you would want to receive. As you would have someone understand you, take the trouble to extend yourself to understand where that person is coming from.

Duke may seem like it’s all finished, but we’re making this place every day, and we have a choice about what kind of place we’re going to make. One person put up that noose, but a thousand people came together to say, That’s not the Duke we want, that’s not the Duke we’re here for, and that’s not the Duke we’re here to create. Thank you.

1400 words delivered publicly, with depth, with spirit, mere hours after the Duke community suffered a shock not unlike the one we have all just endured. Mere hours after — not five long days during which Stanford students, faculty, staff, and others were left to ponder and worry about a dark event, all in the deafening silence of their administration.

The response by Duke’s administration-its timeliness, depth, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity — throws into relief the indolence, shallowness, and callousness of Stanford’s. Duke’s President may have missed things. His statement may have been imperfect. But there was, at the very least, a genuine attempt to lead and to serve, as such a position demands.

There is simply no excuse for the immense difference in style and substance and meaningfulness, but there is a reason.

Stanford fails to “appreciate” two things — the profound history of bigotry in this country, and the present political environment of the United States (something that even Brodhead fails to acknowledge). This environment includes a sharp spike in the number of hate crimes perpetrated by people encouraged to unleash racism by a President of the United States who has publicly stirred up such actions with glee and self-satisfaction.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (“The Joy of Hatred”), Jamelle Bouie provides much needed historical detail on what lynching could actually involve:

On the day of the lynching, an estimated 10,000 people crowded along Paris’s main street to witness the killing. Smith was bound to a float and paraded across town in a theatrical performance meant to emphasize his guilt. The audience jeered and chanted, cursed and gave the rebel yell. “Fathers, men of social and business standing, took their children to teach them how to dispose of Negro criminals,” a witness to the event said. “Mothers were there, too, even women whose culture entitles them to be among the social and intellectual leaders of the town.” Around noon, Smith was tortured, doused with kerosene and lit ablaze, immolated for the crowd’s enjoyment.

He then goes on to remark upon the political rally at which Donald Trump uttered his violent, racist remarks against four women of color:

It is important to take history on its own terms. We shouldn’t conflate the past with the present, but we should also be aware of ideas and experiences that persist through time. A political rally centered on the denunciation of a prominent black person demands reference to our history of communal, celebratory racism. It’s critical for placing the event in context, and it can help us understand the dynamic between the president and his base.

If Trump has an unbreakable bond with his supporters, it’s because he gives them permission to express their sense of siege. His rhetoric frees them from the mores and norms that keep their grievance in check. His rallies — his political carnivals — provide an opportunity to affirm their feelings in a community of like-minded individuals.

Time and again, the Stanford administration has conspicuously avoided “appreciating” the full impact of the present political moment upon those most affected by bigotry — people of color, immigrants, refugees, gays, lesbians, trans-people, people from less privileged backgrounds, people of different political beliefs. Misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred flow freely, and the noose found on campus is but one symbol of that hatred.

Make no mistake — this is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of ethics, morality, and values. This administration has shown itself unwilling and unable to speak with any authority or commitment on the most serious matters before us. It performs its administrative tasks in this regard well below par, and that subpar performance has, over and over again, shown this administration’s moral and ethical weakness.

Most shockingly, as administrators of an institution of higher education, it shows a complete ignorance of the knowledge produced by its own faculty. Stanford’s communications office itself noted Professor Jennifer Eberhardt’s work on police bias, and used it to help boost Stanford’s signal:

Stanford researchers found racial disparities in how Oakland Police Department officers treated African Americans on routine traffic or pedestrian stops. The researchers suggest 50 measures to improve police-community relations, such as better data collection, bias training, and changing cultures and systems.

Nevertheless, despite such publicity, in its speech and in its actions, Stanford’s administration fails to connect the most obvious dots between the persistent threat of police violence and the specific and profound manners in which racism — emanating both from those who wield power, and from cowards like the one who hung the noose cloaked by secrecy — affects black and brown people on our very own campus.

It has become patently clear that this administration’s priorities lie elsewhere. We have become convinced that it is willing to let huge areas of research and teaching, and immense areas of student, staff, and faculty concern, lie un-addressed, or treated with false concern expressed in

the most vacuous language possible, and, most importantly, without the substantial actions that such concerns warrant. In that emptiness and lack of assertive action, the administration acquiesces to hatred, prejudice, ignorance, and violence. In fact, in so acquiescing, it enables each of those things.

And, beyond being morally appalling — it is also a failure to do one’s job. This administration refuses to protect the most vulnerable and the most precarious amongst us, and instead is entranced with its own priorities. Instances such as the present one have happened too many times for it to be simply a matter of accidental tone-deafness. It shows an incapacity to truly listen, to think, and to act with empathy and with courage.

Signed,

Naomi Alem, Recent Grad

Adrian Avalos, Stanford Undergrad

Ian Balfour, Former Visiting Professor

Jason Beckman, PhD Candidate

Nizhóní Begay, student

Eda Benites, student

Erica Brindley

Jennifer DeVere Brody, Faculty Director, Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity

Eamonn Callan, Pigott Family School of Education Professor, Emeritus

Samil Can, PhD. student

Darnell Carson, Undergrad

Alisha Cherian, PhD candidate

Calvin Cheung-Miaw, Modern Thought and Literature

Kathleen Coll BA 89, MA 90, PhD 00

Niza Contreras, Class of 2020

Maxe Crandall, FGSS Lecturer

Todd Davies, Lecturer, Symbolic Systems

Adrian Doan, Undergraduate student

Jessica Femenias, Prospective Freshman

Megan Formato Lecturer, Program in Writing and Rhetoric and Coordinator, Notation in Science Communication

Whitney Francis, Coterm

Zephyr Frank, Professor of History

Olivia Fu, undergraduate

Angela Garcia, Associate Professor of Anthropolgy

Cynthia Garcia, Graduate Student

Adrian Gonzalez, Undergraduate

Andrea Griego, Alumni 2012

Pablo Haake, Masters Student

Stevan Harrell, A.B. 1968, Ph.D. 1974

Tambi Harwood, Employee

Gabrielle Hecht, History & FSI

Kimiko Hirota, Undergraduate student

Allyson Hobbs, Associate Professor of American History & Director of African and African American Studies

Elizabeth Jacob, History, PhD Candidate

Amanda Jacquez, Undergraduate Student

Dustin Janatpour, BS 2013, MS 2014

Natalie Johnson, Undergraduate

Jasmine Jones, Undergraduate

Jacob Kuppermann, Undergrad

Teresa LaFromboise, Graduate School of Education & Native American Studies

Josh Lappen, alumnus, BA MS

Khoi Le, Undergraduate

Jonathan Leal, PhD Candidate in Modern Thought & Literature

Indra Levy, Associate Professor, East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Comparative Literature

Becky Liang, Student

Chloé Brault MacKinnon, PhD Candidate

Benjamin Maldonado, Undergraduate

Michael Marsh, Undergraduate Student

Samuel Maull, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology

Kai Middlebrook, Researcher assistant

Ana Minian, Associate Professor

Justine Modica, PhD Candidate, History

Alaina Morgan, Postdoc

Tamara Morris, Student

Tom Mullaney, Professor of History

Aaron Neiman, Department of Anthropology

Cindy Ng, Staff

Kevin Niehaus, Grad Student

Hilton Obenzinger, Chinese RR Workers of North America Project

John R. Oberholzer, BAS ’19, MS ’21

Iris Osorio-Villatoro, Student

Amado Padilla, Professor, Graduate School of Education

David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Prof. of Comparative Literature

Joshua Pe, Undergraduate Student

Nathaniel Ramos, Undergraduate

Vaughn Rasberry, Associate Professor, English and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

Richard Roberts, History and African Studies

Erica Robles-Anderson, B.S. 2001, PhD 2009

Selby Wynn Schwartz Lecturer, PWR

Jamie Seney, Student

Arianna Serafini, Undergraduate

Thomas Sheehan, Religious Studies and, by courtesy, Philosophy and German

Helena Silva-Nichols, Undergraduate

Ashveer Singh, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology

Faatimah Solomon, Stanford Undergrad

Lara Spencer, Graduate student

Peter Stansky, Professor of History Emeritus

Alanna Sun, undergraduate

Michael Svolos, Undergrad

Dionne Thomas, Undergraduate

Daela Tipton, Grad Student

Amy Tomasso, Alum ‘16

Ashley Toribio, Student

Cécile Tresfels Alumni, French Ph.D.

Eyob Tsegaye, Undergraduate student

Esther Tsvayg, Student

Guadalupe Valdes, School of Education

Robin Valenza, alumna

Adrian Vega, Alumni

Jade Verdeflor, Alumna

Hisaake Wake, PhD, Japanese, 2012

Kyle Walker, Student

Ge Wang, Associate Professor

Tenzin Wangdak, Undergraduate Student

Syd Westley, Undergrad Student ‘21

Anna Whittell, alum

Justin Wilck, Undergraduate

Mikael Wolfe, Faculty

Timothy Yu, PhD, English

Caroline Zha, Undergraduate

Victoria Zurita, PhD student

Albert Milo, Alumnus