African-American students say they matriculated to Duke Divinity School expecting to enhance their calling with top-notch theological training at a prestigious program. But instead they say they entered a racial nightmare seemingly from another era, with students being called the n-word and other slurs in class, consistently receiving lower grades than their white colleagues and being fed a curriculum with no inclusion of black religious traditions.
The racial animus and suspicions of unequal treatment have led to numerous protests on the Durham, NC campus over the past year and created a tense school environment, where students of color feel they are targeted by other students and faculty for speaking out, according to interviews with current and former students.
“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 who is in her third year at Duke Divinity. “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 stressed that the intolerant atmosphere also targets Latino and LGBTQ students.
“People are blatantly allowed to question the humanity of LGBTQ students and no one does anything about it,” said Burgin, 34, who received a master’s degree in psychology at North Carolina Central University before she matriculated at Duke Divinity. “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 the tense racial atmosphere at the school is a byproduct of changes that have occurred in recent years as the school has increasingly come under the influence of the conservative white evangelical community inside the United Methodist Church.
Though it was founded in 1926 by UMC, Duke Divinity claims to have an ecumenical approach to theology and boasts on its website about the school’s commitment to diversity to “foster more faithful, hopeful, and loving forms of common life.”
“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.”
Of the 631 students enrolled in the 2016-17 school year, 16 percent were African American, 6 percent Asian, 4 percent Latino and 68 percent white.
Kenny said the evangelical community has gained more influence on seminaries across the country.
“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.”
Kenny said he is worried that black people of faith now have such a limited presence in seminaries that it will affect the kind of pastors leading black churches in the future.
“That’s my primary concern, that the future of the black church is at risk,” he said. “In the future, you no longer will have people like Jeremiah Wright and Johnny Ray Youngblood who are really centered around black liberation theology and giving a message to people about social justice. You will see the kind of conservative black pastors who support the Trump administration, with an emphasis on reconciliation without any dialogue. That’s a very dangerous place for those who are committed to the black tradition.”
Annette Rodriguez, who graduated from Duke Divinity earlier this month, said students of color have suffered because of the instability in the leadership of the school, which has had three deans in the past three years.
“That has led to a lot of disarray,” said Rodriguez, 30, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who got an MBA and worked in the New York business world before she answered her religious calling and went to Duke. “You have a very small percentage of each incoming class that is black or Latino students, but there aren’t faculty and staff anymore to reflect the population of minority students in the school. We’ve had two highly recognized black faculty go to Yale [Eboni Marshall Truman and Willie Jennings] and there’s only one Latino right now [Edgardo Colón-Emeric], with no sign of another Latino hire. The first year I was here, three years ago, the dean made a point to say there were no qualified Latino scholars to teach at Duke, that we had the only one. That was an immense falsehood.”
Of the school’s 42 full-time faculty members, 6 are African American, 2 are Asian, 1 is Latino and the remaining 33 are white.
Rodriguez said she grew weary of having to represent the non-white point of view in every class. For instance, in a class she had called American Christianity, she said she felt extremely offended when a white student announced that his ancestors had fought for the Confederacy and they should be honored by students in the class.
“The class had a teacher’s assistant who was not well-versed in talking about racism,” Rodriguez said. “As we were reading the narrative of a slave owner, I voiced disagreement with the fact that they were giving it an agreeable read, saying this woman was between a rock and a hard place in deciding whether she had to abuse her slaves. The student said even if we didn’t like it, it was our job to honor his ancestors because they didn’t know any better. And the teacher came to the student’s defense. We’re constantly put in these positions where it looks like we’re difficult as students because the overwhelming majority of voices are white.”
Burgin said with the turnover at the top, there hasn’t been enough attention paid to the limitations of the teacher’s assistants.
“A lot of TAs are not trained in classroom management, not trained in institutional bias,” she said. “For us, that was a serious issue.”
Burgin said black students also grew outraged when they began comparing grades and discovered that, as a group, they were consistently receiving lower grades than their white classmates.
“I’ve had professors question my writing skills,” Burgin said. “I got a master’s in psychology before I came to the divinity school; I came here knowing that I know how to write. So when I got a paper back that said, ‘We don’t know that your interpretation is appropriate. Did you actually read the scripture assigned?’ My response was, ‘Did you read the scripture?'”
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