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Duke activists attempt high-tech lynching against top officials for one disputed slur

Rich people and their driving, am I right?

Walking through Georgetown yesterday, I nearly got hit by a BMW that was coming out of a parking lot. The driver looked left but not right, and kept going until I had screamed STOP! twice.

So I have an idea what Shelvia Underwood was thinking when a silver Porsche pulled up to her while she was directing traffic away from the big Duke-Elon football game on Aug. 30, 2014.

When she wouldn’t let the car pass through, the white driver hit her, then flashed two parking passes and called her a “nigger” before driving off, Underwood alleged.

The driver turned out to be Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask. He wrote her an apology, but only for raising his voice when she wouldn’t honor his “special all access pass” for the game, Trask said.

More than a year later, Trask said a lawyer threatened to sue him for the incident. He claims that Underwood got herself hit by stepping back in front of his car after she had stepped away and calls the alleged slur “a complete fabrication.”

No witness interviewed by the Office of Institutional Equity confirmed Underwood’s account of the slur – just one “family friend” of Underwood’s who later claimed she heard it while walking to the game.

We know about this dispute because The Chronicle at Duke wrote a two-part series last week exhaustively going over allegations and rebuttal, as well as larger complaints about “racism, harassment, retaliation and bullying” in the Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) department in which Underwood worked as a contract employee.

This is all well and good. No one should be above the law or lawful campus policies, whether they manage the university’s assets, run a logistical agency – or serve as an employee in that agency.


But predictably, Duke activists want to believe the survivor, ignore anything contrary to that narrative, and use it for a much bigger political campaign.

They are trying to claim the scalps of Trask, his right-hand VP and the head of PTS, based on a single heavily disputed incident (“nitwit” sounds more in keeping with Trask’s alleged muttering “dumb, dumb, stupid”), and connect every other tangible grievance they can.

Former PTS employees not only held a Tuesday protest that drew about two dozen students, but they griped about what the low turnout said about their cause:

“There is systemic racism on Duke’s campus, and that’s a fact,” [former PTS special-events manager Renee] Adkins said, speaking to the protestors. “Fear of retaliation is one of the reasons there aren’t more of us here today.” …

“It’s crazy that only 35 people are here,” one protester said. “I believe in reflecting on how much that is a piece of this puzzle. It’s such an apathetic campus.”

Several of the protestors, including undergraduate and graduate students, also described the incident with Trask and the culture within PTS as parts of larger issues relating to race and class on campus.

“The purpose of this campaign is to attack every facet and corner of institutional racism, starting with Trask,” one student at the gathering said.

They claim that other men watching the protest from a distance were campus detectives:

“We’re under surveillance, but the type of egregious crimes committed by Trask are not punished,” said Danielle Purifoy, a fourth year Ph.D. candidate and one of the protestors. “He is gallivanting around town, demonstrating that he believes he is above the law.”

You want to know why so few students came out? My guess is that it has nothing to do with retaliation, at least for those who aren’t PTS employees.

Professional protesters will die without a narrative

Students don’t see how an unremarkable incident – a testy encounter between a driver and a parking-flow employee – says anything about a larger problem at Duke. They may believe Duke has larger problems, but this isn’t indicative of it. They don’t inflate their importance enough to believe they are the target of Hoover’s FBI.

The only people determined to see a Greater Narrative are the semi-professional activists, who like Donald Trump or anthropomorphic advertising characters will die without attention:

One student noted that a number of student groups—including the Asian American Alliance, Students for Justice in Palestine, United Students Against Sweatshops, Mi Gente, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Blue Devils United, the Muslim Students Association, the Native American Students Association and Diya—signed the statement on Change.org calling for the removal of Trask. The petition had gained more than 250 supporters online as of Tuesday night.

From the reporting of The Chronicle, these allegations sound worthy of investigation and possibly re-investigation by an outside entity.

A poorly managed department that treats employees like garbage is a drag on the university. A top official who doesn’t think he has to obey the rules everyone else does – Trask is alleged to frequently forget his parking passes – only encourages others to ignore the rules.

But these are not examples of “institutional racism.” They are examples of the rule of men encroaching on the rule of law.

By turning every problem into The Most Serious Thing Ever, student activists are doing the same thing.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.