Duke University – May 9, 2015

Duke professor’s racialized comments spark controversy

Durham, NC

Duke University Professor Jerry Hough came under fire for an online comment about race that school officials called “noxious” and “offensive.” Hough had posted the comment on a New York Times editorial entitled “How Racism Doomed Baltimore.” The editorial questioned the origins of the Baltimore riots that had begun two weeks prior in response to the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, while he was in police custody. In six paragraphs, Hough refuted the editorial’s claim that violence erupted in part due to the “poverty and isolation” experienced by African Americans in Baltimore and perpetuated by the city’s government. Hough claimed that the editorial tells African Americans to “feel sorry for themselves.” To explain, he made a series of comparisons between African Americans and Asian Americans with respect to cultural assimilation. Hough drew criticism from both the Duke student body and the university administration during an academic year already fraught with racial tension.

Key Players

Dr. Jerry F. Hough is a research professor in the Department of Political Science at Duke University. He is a leading Kremlinologist, according to The Washington Post, specializing in the democratization of the former Soviet Union. As a James B. Duke Professor, he holds an honor that The Duke Chronicle notes is equivalent to distinguished status at other universities, and he is the author of seven acclaimed books. He has also contributed opinion pieces to The Post and local Durham news outlets. The eighty-year-old professor had taught at Duke University for forty years in 2015 when he posted the controversial online comment on a New York Times editorial. Hough was on a two-year leave at the time of the incident, and he announced during the backlash to his comments that 2016 would be his last year teaching. However, he later decided to continue his work at Duke University and signed a retirement contract for 2018, The Duke Chronicle reports.

Further Details

Both the Duke University campus and the country were reeling from significant racial tensions in 2015 when a student posted a screenshot of Hough’s comment to a campus Facebook group. The comment came from the online iteration of “How Racism Doomed Baltimore,” a New York Times editorial that explored the complexities of ongoing racial violence and police brutality across the country. In the comment, Hough criticized The Times for “awful editorials like this that tell [African Americans] to feel sorry for themselves.” Hough went on to contrast the assimilation of African Americans into American society with that of Asian Americans, who Hough believes have overcome racism more effectively. “In 1965 the Asians were discriminated against as least as badly as blacks,” Hough noted. “So where are the editorials that say racism doomed the Asian-Americans. They didn’t feel sorry for themselves, but worked doubly hard.”

Hough, who identified himself in the comment as a professor at Duke University, illustrated his views with an example from his teaching. Asian students, he observed, usually have a “simple old American” first name which “symbolizes their desire for integration.” They are also likely to engage in interracial relationships with white students. Black students, on the other hand, he said, have “strange new names” which Hough believes are symbolic of their distaste for integration, and he says they also rarely date outside their race.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reached out to Hough, and he confirmed that the comment was his own. Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University’s Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations, told the Chronicle that Hough’s comments have “no place in civil discourse,” but that the Faculty Handbook respects a professor’s right to free speech.

Professor Jack Knight, the chair of Hough’s department, sent an email to all political science students a few days later. Knight condemned Hough’s words, calling them “noxious and repugnant.” He assured students that Hough’s views do not represent those of the department and declared that the “principle of academic freedom” should not jeopardize safety in the classroom.

The statements from both Duke University representatives reflect a new stance against racism taken by the university due to two incidents less than a month prior to Hough’s comment. First, a female student claimed she was followed by a group of young men shouting “you can hang them from a tree,” a chant made famous by a University of Oklahoma fraternity. Two weeks later, a noose was found hanging from a tree on campus near the Center for Multicultural Affairs. An unnamed student was found responsible and expelled, but not before a series of student protests raised questions about the administration’s dedication to preventing racism. In a blog post, Hough’s colleague and Duke Professor of African American Studies Mark Anthony Neal characterized Hough’s comment as a “micro-noose.”

Local and national media outlets that reported on Hough’s comment initially indicated that Duke University had placed him on leave for his actions. But both Hough and the school later clarified that his leave of absence had been planned long before the controversy.

Hough had made similar comments before. In 2001, he wrote a letter to the editor of The Duke Chronicle when the newspaper came under fire for printing an advertisement opposed to slavery reparations. Hough said that “blacks need to learn to think politically” and noted that the n-word is “nothing in comparison” to the racist jokes endured by Polish immigrants. He compared racial tensions between white males and minorities to two teams playing basketball, emphasizing that the losing team should exercise tough plays and sportsmanship — rather than “complaining and whining” — in response to the “big boys” who push and elbow. Hough’s RateMyProfessor.com page– a website where students can anonymously rank the performance of instructors– is also rife with complaints about prejudices, according to The Washington Post.


Hough Defends His Comment

In the aftermath of the incident, Hough has continually defended his comment to both the Duke University community and the national media. “I am 80 and figure I can speak the truth as I see it. Ignorant I am not,” he wrote in an email to several news organizations. Hough said that he had only two regrets about his comment: that it included typos and that he “phrased it in a very bad way” by making blanket assertions.

Hough has also criticized the culture of sensitivity in political discourse, saying that he made a statement that “probably wasn’t polite.” Hough insists, however, that he is not racist. He explained that the first book he ever assigned as a professor, in 1961, was John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and that Martin Luther King Jr. is his hero. He says that his best student is African American, according to the Daily Mail.

“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. The comments have convinced me to write a book which will add the Asians to all the research I did on blacks,” Hough told The Chronicle of Higher Education. He noted to Business Insider that he has only been criticized for being insensitive and not for being wrong.

Hough is working on a book about the 1960s social revolutions, according to the Daily Mail. He will remain at Duke University until his planned retirement in 2018.

External References:

James B. Duke Professor Jerry Hough makes controversial comment on New York Times editorial, The Chronicle

How Racism Doomed Baltimore, The New York Times

Duke professor whose online comments about ‘the Asians’ sparked outrage wrote something eerily similar in 2001, Business Insider

Duke rocked by latest apparent act of racism, CBS News

Duke professor, attacked for ‘noxious’ racial comments, refuses to back down, The Washington Post

Prepared by Adelina Lancianese ‘17

August 22, 2017