PUBLISHED:April 13, 2015

Students organize "Speak-Out Against Racial Intolerance"

About 175 Duke Law students, faculty, and staff gathered on April 9 to share their reactions to news of a noose recently found hanging from a tree on Duke’s campus, and to reflect on race-relations at the law school more generally. The discussion touched on the occasional difficulty and discomfort of addressing America’s troubled racial legacy in classes that touch on the legal decisions that framed the debate over slavery, or when learning about fair housing or equal protection laws. Many students talked about the need to have honest dialogue about race with one another.

Six student groups joined to organize the lunch-hour “Speak-Out,” which was moderated by three counselors from Duke Counseling and Psychological Services.

Student organizer Judea Davis JD/MA ’15 called the capacity crowd “very encouraging.”

“It’s exactly what we wanted,” she said.

The intent of the event was to start an ongoing dialogue open to all participants and viewpoints, Davis said.

"Our hope is that we'll leave here with some tools to understand the incidents on campus, and a better understanding of the people we go to school with, the people we interact with,” she said. “To do that, we need to ensure a safe space for all perspectives."

Reactions to the noose and another recent report of racial animosity towards African Americans ranged from shock and anger to surprise. Many students said that they thought it was important not to let the feeling of urgency recede with time, echoing the sentiment that resolve to continue addressing and improving race relations should be harnessed into a “movement, not a moment.”

Professor Samuel Buell said the noose incident painted a picture of Duke that he didn’t recognize. "My reaction was outrage,” he said. ”This is not the Duke I love and came here for, these aren’t the students I know, this is so damaging to everything we're trying to create."

Buell acknowledged the difficulty of discussing, even in a purely academic and legal context, America's troubled racial history.

"It's incredibly hard to teach issues of race,” he said. “There are lots of tense dynamics, and we need to know if a student feels uncomfortable about anything in the classroom. So it's really helpful if students come talk to us about the pedagogy. I know it’s probably scary, especially in the first year, but I don't know any faculty member who wouldn't welcome that conversation with a student."

The organizers also presented an open letter written by a coalition of students, stressing their desire to make Duke Law “an example to the other schools on our campus and throughout the country that people of different races can thrive alongside one another, not just coexist.” (The full text of the letter is available at

The event was sponsored and organized by the Duke Bar Association, Black Law Students Association, OUTLaw, Hispanic Law Students Association, Asian Law Students Association, and Christian Legal Society. The Speak-Out was organized by third-year students Davis, Seth Pearson, Nichole Davis, Jana Kovich, Gordon Summers, Patrick Spaugh, and second-year students Liz Wangu and Christine Kim.