Pain, skepticism linger after UD noose incident

 UD students rally on the college green. (Avi Wolfman-Arent, NewsWorks/WHYY)

UD students rally on the college green. (Avi Wolfman-Arent, NewsWorks/WHYY)

Three noose-like objects discovered hanging from a tree Tuesday night on the University of Delaware’s main college green were little more than leftover decorations say local police.

But outside the university’s Center for Black Culture on bustling South College Avenue, you won’t find many students who buy that narrative.

“You’re telling me yesterday was the first time people saw these hanging from trees,” asked University of Delaware sophomore Zulu Oyaro with mocking disbelief. “That’s UD, man.”

Authorities initially investigated the incident as a hate crime, but ultimately said the objects were remnants from paper lanterns that had been hung weeks earlier. That they were discovered Tuesday night–24 hours after a Black Lives Matter rally took place nearby–was mere coincidence, police say.

But for many black students at UD, that explanation wasn’t sufficient. That’s in part, they say, because of longstanding racial tensions on the Newark campus, where white undergraduates outnumber black undergrads 15 to 1.

“I don’t even think that it’s mostly anger at this point,” said Jahaan Davis, a UD junior. “I think a lot of us we’ve been dealing with a lot of subtle and discreet racism on a day to day basis here. It’s more so I think that we’re tired.”

At a rally held Wednesday evening on the college green, student after student described that racism–some indirect and some shockingly overt. Multiple students said they’d been called the n-word or other racial slurs while on campus. Their stories were met with tears and defiant cheers from the hundreds of students and faculty on hand, many of whom dressed in all black.

Interim UD President Nancy Targett and other top university officials sat quietly on a podium while the students talked. Though the university firmly believes the objects in the trees were not intended as racial affronts, Targett said student reaction indicates the university has much work to do.

“When I learned that this was not a hate crime I can’t tell you how relieved I was,” Targett said. “But I was also deeply disturbed to see how this incident exposed feelings of pain and fear in our students.”

The University of Delaware did not admit black students until a 1950 lawsuit by civil rights attorney Louis Redding forced the school to integrate. Since then, however, the state’s flagship university has continued to enroll a disproportionately low number of black students. Though 22 percent of the First State’s population is black, only around 5 percent of the university’s undergraduate population is African American.

Local politicians and advocates have prodded the school to improve those figures, and the state legislature recently set aside money so that a consultant could look into UD’s hiring and student recruitment practices. University officials say they’ve heeded those calls, and that they want UD to be both diverse and welcoming. Student outcry Wednesday, however, delivered something of a reality check.

“I thought we were doing pretty well–not perfect, not all the time–but OK,” said Targett. “Clearly, though, if some of our students feel this way–if this is their UD experience–then we’re not doing enough.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal