More than Just a Task Force

Ah, bureaucracy. We all know far too well that when a problem arises at a university or any other major institution, the administration makes a task force.

A tweet by @realbigv1 reads: “universities be like ‘our department of offices will create a task force to launch a committee dedicated to having ongoing conversations about steps towards knowing a spot.’”

Being a student at Duke, we know this language is not that far off from our unfortunately frequent emails sent by administration, responding to acts of hate but seeking only to affirm their commitment to diversity and inclusion, make a task force, and put their recommendations away on a shelf. After consistent acts of racist hate, the university did exactly this with the 2016 Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues, which even toyed with the idea of a university crash course partially dedicated to Duke’s racist history, a project which remains unactualized today.

Duke is not alone in this, though. Around the globe, accountability is so often curated by those in power to be something they can address at their own leisure and discretion. My most recent research at Accountability Counsel has proven just how widespread and damaging disingenuous accountability can truly be to vulnerable groups.

Over the past few weeks, I sifted through well over a thousand complaints filed with internationally financed projects to create a more comprehensive categorization framework in our Accountability Console. Each complaint follows a similar path through a bank’s accountability mechanism, but ultimately the decision to change the project is up to the bank’s board. And more often than it should, the board chooses to ignore the recommendations of the accountability mechanism, citing their own argument for why the complaint is invalid and filing the recommendations away.

Almost surprisingly, project site visits are a typical step in the process of accountability to gauge just to what extent the project has damaged, but witnessing human rights violations is not so often translated to tangible change. Relying heavily on the evidentiary documents provided by the bank itself, problematic practices sometimes go seen, but ignored by those that conduct site visits.

Again, we’ve seen this before both at Duke and beyond. Duke has had its fair share of site visits to the concepts and flaws students bring to the university’s attention either through organized protests regarding acts of hate or concerted efforts by impacted students. Task forces on hate, the Provost Forum on Immigration, and Living While Black are all striking examples of the university’s efforts to publicly consider making changes to and engaging with their role in oppressive systems, but resigning from taking too many steps past that.

But like the board management of banks, the problem becomes seemingly invisible once a conversation is had – a brief visit to the complaint, a well-documented consideration, and a highly unrecognized failure to act.

How can we host a forum on immigration that consists mostly of white, male descendants of Europeans expressing disdain for the changing demographics of the United States, all during a spike in ICE raids in Durham? Or while Duke is still not a sanctuary campus, despite repeated demands? At what point do the conversations, site visits, and task forces become institutional change?

All this would undoubtedly be another story if the groups who have been harmed were integral to the process of assigning and choosing to enforce accountability. If Indigenous communities decided how to address their own forced eviction, or if marginalized students decided how to hold administration accountable for permitting hate crimes to go uninvestigated, perhaps we’d see a world quicker to account for the needs of its people.

It should be noted that these two examples face drastically different backdrops and yet, they are bound together under a global issue. The systems of capitalist, Eurocentric, racist power distribution exist everywhere and it seems clear to me that all those who hold such power, including myself, struggle to authentically do the work to keep themselves accountable.

To be a bit cliché, Assata Shakur expressed, “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of people who were oppressing them.”

Returning to Duke next month it’s unclear how my understanding of Duke’s permitted levels of self-accountability will develop. It’s difficult for students to balance all that they do with attempting to hold administration accountable for change, but there are groups doing the work, including but certainly not limited to, the Duke Black Coalition Against Policing and the Duke Grad Student Union.

Above all, even if I seemingly lack the capacity, I understand it is my responsibility to work towards a campus environment in which administration holds students accountable for individual changes and, in return, we hold them accountable for institutional change. We all know far too well that if it were up to just those in power, accountability would go nowhere.