Noose Found on Maryland College Campus

A noose, long associated with lynching and racial hatred, was recently discovered hanging outside the University of Maryland's hub for black cultural affairs. The discovery sent shockwaves through the campus. Bonnie Thornton-Dill and Ron Walters — both professors at the university — explain student reaction on campus and how the university is responding.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: His new documentary about World War II went through some battles of its own. A conversation with acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns is next.

But first, we want to talk about a symbol that has been at the center of two stories in the news recently. It's made of the most mundane of materials, available for pennies at a hardware store, and yet it carries a symbolic weight all out of proportion to its size. We're talking about the noose.

In Jena, Louisiana this week, civil rights leaders are continuing with plans to protest the treatment meted out to six African-American high school students involved in the beating of a white student.

The beating was one of a series of confrontations that began last summer when several white students hung three nooses from a tree that the white students had been using as a hang out. They hung the nooses when some black students decided they wanted to sit under the tree, also. It has become a national story, raising all manner of questions about race and justice.

And a little over a week ago, students at the University of Maryland at College Park discovered a noose hanging from a tree outside a campus cultural center that houses the Black Student Union, among other organizations. An investigation has not yet uncovered who hung the noose, but the discovery has sparked campus-wide conversation about the atmosphere on campus. So, we decided to speak with two scholars who think about race and symbolism and what all that means.

So joining us to talk about this is Bonnie Thornton Dill, professor and chair of the Women's Studies Department at the University of Maryland. She's here with me in the studio.

Hi, Bonnie.

Professor BONNIE THORNTON DILL (Sociology; Chair of Women's Studies Department, University of Maryland): Hello.

MARTIN: And Ron Walters joins us on the phone. He is professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

Welcome, Professor Walters.

Professor RON WALTERS (Government and Politics, University of Maryland): Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Bonnie, if you'd start, since the noose was hung on campus, what's been the mood? Is this something that the students and faculty are talking a lot about?

Prof. THORNTON DILL: Oh yes, it definitely is. And I think the mood has been mixed. It's been - there's been fear. There's been tension, but there's also been a considerable amount of unity and solidarity. There was a speak out that was sponsored by a number of student organizations.

And I thing they've really been trying to say that students from different backgrounds and different experiences need to come together and unite around this and support each other around this cause, and then be available to support each other around other causes.

So there has been some talk, at least, in terms of trying to see this not just a black thing, but as concern for all of the students on the campus that has been some of the focus.

MARTIN: Why fear, though? Is there a - was there a preexisting racial tension? Were there previous incidents that this incident played into?

Prof. THORNTON DILL: Well, I think…

MARTIN: Because some people argue…

Prof. THORNTON DILL: Right.

MARTIN: …this is a copycat thing, basically based on Jena. This could have been somebody just trying to cause trouble.

Prof. THORNTON DILL: You're right, and it may be. We don't know that. But I do think that students do experience a climate of racial - students do experience a climate of - Maryland is a very diverse place. Students have lots of different experiences, but students do talk about incidences that they experience in classrooms, in the dorms, on the campus that may be subtle forms of what people might call every day racism, as well as less subtle forms of every day racism.

So, while it is a place of great numerical diversity, the mixing of students is not as much, I think, as many students would want to be. And I think there's a lot that could be done to address that. And I think there are a lot of reasons why this is the case.

MARTIN: Ron Walters, why does this symbol retain such power? Most of the students, I venture to say, who are on the campus of the University of Maryland - indeed, many of the adults - probably have no memory of actual incidents of violence using the noose. So why do you believe that this symbol retains such power?

Prof. WALTERS: Well…

MARTIN: Or maybe you think it doesn't?

Prof. WALTERS: No, I think it does, because it's in our historical memory.

And it's not the noose - it is the lynching behind the noose. It represented an era of untold oppression of black people. If you look at the statistics from Tuskegee Institute, for example, they published a report in the early 20th century which said that the lynchings in the 19th century, of course, were common. They extended in a subsequent report by the NAACP all the way through the beginning of the civil rights era: 1951 and forward.

And then, of course, even after that, you have had incidents in the South, like classic Southern slavery-style lynching, where black people were found in trees and there was no sort of acknowledgment of exactly how they got there.

So this has been an historic attempt - an instrument, really - to intimidate and oppress black people. The noose has been the symbol of that lynching, and that's one of the reasons why it retains its power.

MARTIN: Professor Walters, when you found out about the news, how did it make you feel?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, obviously, I feel like any black person. When you look at Jena, of course, I had been very much concerned and an advocate of justice in Jena. The three kids that were - actually came forward said that they had admitted hanging the nooses were only given a few days suspension. There is a sense in which this is not viewed as serious in the white community, because sort of boys will be boys. Let's do this prank against blacks.

And I think that Bonnie was right that this is really a teachable moment. We should take advantage of this, really, to talk about the pain that this symbolizes, and to educate many of these young kids who are not educated in their families, are not educated in their schools what this means.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and I'm speaking with professors Bonnie Thornton Dill and Ron Walters of the University of Maryland about the noose and why it retains its power as a symbol of intimidation.

Professor Thornton Dill, can I ask you, when you found out about the noose, how did it make you feel?

Prof. THORNTON DILL: Well, I was very disturbed. I was very upset because I had, also like professor Walters, have been following the situation in Jena. And you never know about these things, you never know what people - how they've been informed or whether it really is just a copycat or whether people really are sending a message or whether somebody thought it was a joke, which is not. But I was disturbed.

And I also, you know, Michel, one of the things that I think is very striking that we have to understand today is that students come to this very diverse campus, and Maryland is and probably more diverse than a lot of university campuses.

MARTIN: As I understand it, African-American students make up about 13 percent of the undergraduate enrollment there.

Prof. THORNTON DILL: Right. And Asian-Americans about another 13 percent, Latinos about 5 percent, so it is a diverse campus. But most students come from very un-diverse - non-diverse high schools, elementary school experiences. In fact, in recent studies of school segregation that have done - been done by the Harvard Civil Rights Project themselves show that students are in more segregated learning settings today than they were in 1980.

And so, really, when you look at it, and particularly white students - we focus on black and Latino students being segregated, but white students are really even more segregated. There are data about 5 years ago said something like 79 percent of white students went to school - the average white student went to a school that was 79 percent white. So - which means that they come to the university with limited exposure and experience with different people.

And that's why I think the university can play and should play an important role in really educating people because they have no personal experience and they have been miseducated and uneducated in that.

MARTIN: And when you say educating students, what message - what lesson would you like students to take away from these events?

Prof. THORNTON DILL: Mm-hmm. Well, I think, particularly, an institution like the University of Maryland with its history of segregation really has an obligation to teach people about the meaning of race, the symbols of race, the role race has played in that institution and in the country nationally, and why - and what it means for what the institution looks like today, so that people don't leave the institution without understanding that process.

MARTIN: But when you say understanding it, what message, exactly? Because I want to bring up the whole Don Imus controversy…

Prof. THORNTON DILL: Okay.

MARTIN: …because given your role as a women's studies professor. There are some people who argue that entirely too much was made of that. And they argue that that is more destructive of African-American students than it is of white students because it teaches black kids to think that they're victims, that their role in society is always going to be as a victim.

And their argument is that when you emphasize an issue like this that what you're doing is reinforcing that sense of victimhood as opposed to mastery over the history that has been experienced before and a sense of optimism in embracing the future. I'd love to get your take on that point.

Prof. THORNTON DILL: Well, I think you can do that if it's done out of context. But that's the importance of the history. Because if people understand the history, they understand what battles have been fought, what people have overcome, and why it's important to continue to fight these battles so that they will not be a victim.

So, I think, in actuality, it does the exact opposite, but not if it's just pleaded in a vacuum. And so often that is how we treat these incidences, as isolated incidents as people say, oh, I don't - you know, it's not about race, because people don't really understand.

MARTIN: If I could get Professor Walters. If I could get your take on the same question.

Prof. WALTERS: Well, you know, the interesting thing to me is that black people don't control this. I mean, we talk among ourselves as if we do. We don't. Don Imus was a major figure, major network, major friends, lots of money, lots of legitimacy, and so what he said had some legitimacy. Now he blamed it on rappers, but Don Imus had been doing this for 35 years, and his friends were many others in the right-wing radio media crowd. This has very little thing to do with rap.

So when you talk about legitimacy, I mean, you got to talk about people like Senator Allen of Virginia who was said to have had nooses hanging in his office in Virginia. So there is a legitimacy to that, that despite what black people do - and we have our responsibility - whatever we do, this is in the popular culture. It has very powerful legitimacy.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Professor Walters, if I could ask you as a professor, what would you like students to take away from the situation? Very briefly, if you would. You have about 30 seconds.

Prof. WALTERS: Well, I think that, again, as a I said, this is a teachable moment. And I think outside the classroom, I think students have an opportunity to see how the dynamics of racism work. I think the responsibility of teachers, and I applaud Professor Dill's work at the university in this respect of trying to show people something of diversity, something of justice that's important to all groups. I think this is an outside-the-classroom opportunity for the university to play that role.

MARTIN: Professor Ron Walters is professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. He joined us by phone from his home in Silver Spring. And Bonnie Thornton Dill is professor and chair of the women's studies department at the University of Maryland. She was kind enough to join us here in our studio.

Professors - both - thank you so much for speaking with us.

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