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Black students at Duke Divinity accuse faculty, peers of racism

Black students at Duke Divinity accuse faculty, peers of racism news duke university

The statue of Washington Duke on Duke University’s East Campus in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

Students of color at Duke Divinity School are claiming that they’re facing discrimination and unequal treatment from faculty and their peers.

“One of my classmates was sitting in a class, and she texted me and asked me to come to her class because a student was in her class saying, ‘N*ggers like you come here and think that you can just change everything. Why don’t you just learn what Jesus is really about?’” said Amber Burgin, president of the Black Seminarians Union, according to NPR.

“We are in classes trying to pull each other out of class to hear people making inappropriate slurs, like a white student calling someone a jigaboo and then claiming they didn’t know what that means. Or a white classmate calling a black classmate ‘ghetto.’…I’ve had classmates who have had to take leave; I’ve had classmates who have left the program because they were tired of being treated in such a way.”

Burgin also noted that LGBT students and Latinos are facing discrimination.

“People are blatantly allowed to question the humanity of LGBTQ students and no one does anything about it,” the third-year divinity school student said. “This is a reflection of the church and the people of God’s church. Why are we teaching in a space where we are not edifying all of God’s people — or at least we say we are but then we’re treating each other like this?”

Carl Kenny, a prominent African-American minister and journalist who graduated from Duke Divinity School in 1993, said that the atmosphere at the divinity school was the product of an increasingly conservative environment.

“As a local pastor here in Durham, I witnessed the development of students coming through the divinity school over the years that was positive and inspired me as an alum to be happy about the divinity school,” Kenny said. “What I witnessed over the past couple of years has been the steady decline of that type of presence.”

“We have a shift in the way theological education is being taught nationwide that reflects the impact of evangelical teaching, primarily white evangelical ideas, and how they’re being pushed upon the black church,” he said. “To me it’s bigger than just racism on the campus; it’s how it impacts the black church. When you look at seminaries across the country, the funding of those seminaries is coming from evangelical entities who are very conservative. When I arrived at Duke, there was a place for dialogue around issues of race and homosexuality. But the evangelical thrust has pushed Duke in a different direction.”

Elaine Heath took over as Dean of the Duke Divinity School last fall and has made a concerted effort to address these concerns.

“I’ve been working on these issues all year,” Heath said, adding that in regards to racial slurs being used, “Of course that’s deeply offensive if these names are being used. Racial slurs are against what we stand for as an institution. I want to do everything I can to make sure those things don’t happen in the future.”

“With all due respect to the dean, I don’t think she is doing a bad job,” Burgin said. “I think the dean came in with one understanding of the institution she was taking over and got a completely different look when she got here. And it’s a lot to take in, to see all the levels of problems going on with the seminary. I want her to succeed because as a woman I think it’s important for us to have women in leadership at the divinity school.”

Burgin added that the school leadership needed to take students’ concerns seriously not just when it became an issue of protests but also when students make complaints more quietly.

“They have to create a space of diversity even when it’s uncomfortable, because it’s the right thing to do. As they keep telling us in classes, heaven is not segregated. How are we going to teach people in the community about the love of Jesus Christ if we cannot show that in the divinity school?”

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