Do You See What I See?

August 8, 2016

Word clouds, like real clouds, can reveal or obscure; two people looking at the same cumulonimbus invariably will see different things. Using stories from The Chronicle archives, we created two word clouds from the demands students made in the 1969 and 2016 takeovers of the Allen Building. We wanted to find out whether single words, distilled from the order of sentences and the context of paragraphs, might expose new meanings in the narratives. A Duke historian and a linguist pondered our clouds and shared their thoughts.

These clouds remind me that the most striking thing about the student movements for civil rights at Duke in 1968-69 and in 2016 is how similar the demands were.  In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., more than 2,500 Duke students occupied the quad for four days and nights demanding that Duke workers be paid a minimum wage, that they be allowed to organize into unions, that more black faculty be hired, and that a black-studies program be created. (They also demanded that the president resign from a segregated country club, which he did.) Twelve months later, black students occupied the Allen Building to reiterate these demands and insist that Duke establish an African-American-studies program.

Nearly fifty years later, those occupying the Allen Building in 2016 put forth eerily similar demands: recognize the rights of workers to protest and unionize, pay them a $15 minimum wage, work toward making Duke a more inclusive community, address issues of micro-aggression against blacks and other minorities.

Why is there so much similarity when nearly half a century has passed? In part it is because Americans—at least white Americans—have a deep yearning to believe that we have solved our race problems. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 supposedly addressed the problem of racial inequality. Yet our history cannot be whitewashed so easily. Why today are blacks sent to jail at six and a half times the rate of whites for nonviolent drug offenses, even though the same percentage of both whites and blacks (13 percent) use drugs? The “new Jim Crow,” as civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander has called it in her 2010 book, is fundamentally the same as the old Jim Crow. Racism continues unabated. 

Second, at Duke especially, we use statistical progress to disguise the absence of substantive change. Yes, our student body has gone from being 5 percent nonwhite in the late ’60s to 51 percent nonwhite today. (That the 1969 word cloud uses “black” fifteen times and doesn’t appear in the 2016 version might suggest that progress.) But does that statistical change translate into the creation of an inclusive multiracial community where people talk to each other—across racial lines--about the fundamental issues of life? And are Duke’s workers—primarily black workers—recipients of fair and just treatment by their employer?

What the parallels between 1968-69 and 2016 show more than anything else is that racism remains a problem we have yet to deal with. That will change only if we make it change.

William H. Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of history emeritus

Human language, as far as we know, has a unique quality compared to the communication systems of other species. It is not just a means to represent or reflect our realities. Words don’t point simply to the things in the world to which they refer. Instead, we use language to actively shape and construct our realities, a process of continual meaning-making that is a constant renegotiation of our roles and places in the world. 

Given that these two word clouds represent two texts of student demands, we would expect to find words such as “want” or “demand.” But why so often? Why are such documents not simply a list of what is wanted by those doing the demanding? The short answer is that these texts are performing a particular function in the construction and creation of realities. This function goes beyond communicating specific grievances and steps for resolution. 

“Demand” and “want” are almost always verbs in both the 1969 and 2016 cases. From a linguistic perspective, this structure can be explained: The very act of expressing a demand creates a political relationship between the demanders and those being demanded of. To say “we demand” or “we want” is to create an obligation on the other party to respond, even if the response is actually not to respond at all.

Put another way, once we utter “we demand,” whatever action or inaction the other party takes is constructed as reciprocal. Unsurprisingly, the party in question in both these texts is Duke University, and hence an institution with an authority that warrants the frequency of these words. In the 2016 version, the context of the protest can be seen more specifically with the use of the word “administrators” and some references to named individuals.

An interesting difference is in the appearance of “students” in the word cloud from the 1969 protest, which is far more prevalent than in the 2016 example. While the two texts come from two groups of students, the 1969 example is much more oriented toward issues that affect students themselves—in this case, black students in particular. The more recent text illustrates how the student protestors were articulating concerns on behalf of another group who they felt needed to be spoken for; here, we see “employees” and “workers” at a high level of frequency. 

Gareth O. Price, visiting assistant professor in the linguistics program