Education

Duke professor responds to criticism about his comments on African Americans

A Duke University professor faced sharp criticism for online comments he made on the New York Times website, where he compared “the blacks” and “the Asians,” writing that Asians “didn’t feel sorry for themselves, but worked doubly hard.”
A Duke University professor faced sharp criticism for online comments he made on the New York Times website, where he compared “the blacks” and “the Asians,” writing that Asians “didn’t feel sorry for themselves, but worked doubly hard.” hlynch@newsobserver.com

A Duke University professor faced sharp criticism for online comments he made on The New York Times website, where he compared “the blacks” and “the Asians,” writing that Asians “didn’t feel sorry for themselves, but worked doubly hard.”

In a six-paragraph comment on the Times website, political science professor Jerry Hough wrote: “The blacks get awful editorials like this that tell them to feel sorry for themselves.”

Hough did not agree to be interviewed, but late Friday he said in an email that his comments were misunderstood. He had been prompted to write about a May 9 editorial in the New York Times on the Baltimore riots and underlying factors of segregation and poverty. He said the editorial should have called for the mayor of Baltimore to resign, instead of blaming white racism.

“I don’t know if you will find anyone to agree with me,” he said in an email to The News & Observer. “Anyone who says anything is a racist and ignorant as I was called by a colleague. The question is whether you want to get involved in the harassment and few do. I am 80 and figure I can speak the truth as I see it. Ignorant I am not.”

In his New York Times comment, Hough praised Asians. “Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration,” his online comment said. “Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration. The amount of Asian-white dating is enormous and so surely will be the intermarriage. Black-white dating is almost non-existent because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white.”

The comment concluded: “It was appropriate that a Chinese design won the competition for the Martin Luther King state (sic). King helped them overcome. The blacks followed Malcolm X.”

Hough was swiftly blasted on Twitter and other social media sites. Duke officials decried the professor’s comments while defending his right to make them.

Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke professor of African and African American Studies, responded on his blog by pasting a screen shot of the comment, with this: “In the words of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, microagressions = micro-nooses--Mark Anthony Neal.” Bonilla-Silva is a Duke sociology professor.

In an email, Hough said he was a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and voted for President Barack Obama. He pointed out that the first book he assigned to students in 1961 was “Black Like Me.” He further stated that one of the best students he ever taught was African American, and he had encouraged her to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, but she pursued a career in athletics.

He said he’s working on a book on the 1960s social revolutions and that “I am very disappointed in the lack of progress” for African Americans.

“The point I was raising was why the Asians who were oppressed did so well and are integrating so well, and the blacks are not doing as well,” his email said. “The comments have convinced me to write a book which will add the Asians to all the research I did on blacks.”

He also admitted his comment in the New York Times was not expressed as well as he had intended: “There were typos in my outrage towards [the editorial] and I could have been more careful (though hard in the space limits).”

Duke reaction

Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld distanced the university from the professor’s New York Times comments but also pointed out academic freedom provisions in Duke’s Faculty Handbook.

“The comments were noxious, offensive and have no place in civil discourse,” Schoenfeld wrote in an email. “Duke University has a deeply-held commitment to inclusiveness grounded in respect for all, and we encourage our community to speak out when they feel that those ideals are challenged or undermined, as they were in this case.”

He quoted from the Faculty Handbook, which says every faculty member has the right “to act and to speak in his or her capacity as a citizen without institutional censorship or discipline.”

Schoenfeld said he couldn’t comment on personnel matters, but added, “we take issues like this seriously and will use the opportunity to restate Duke’s core values of diversity and tolerance.”

According to the university’s website, Hough, the James B. Duke Professor of Political Science, has focused his research on the former Soviet Union. He has also written on the U.S. Founding Fathers. He holds three degrees from Harvard. He said in his email that he has been on leave this year and will wrap up his teaching career in 2016 after 40 years at Duke.

The situation comes a few weeks after a Duke student hung a noose from a tree, prompting outrage. The student left the campus but issued an apology and will return to Duke in the fall.

Stancill: 919-829-4559;

Twitter: @janestancill

  Comments