Duke: Horror and Truth
By Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
© Tribune Media Services
"Divorced Mother Of Two, Working Way Through College, Allegedly Raped, Abused By Gang." Had the headline read that way, the fury would have been great. The facts that the police didn't arrest anyone, that the gang was not talking, that it took two days for the police to search the scene of the crime would have added to the anger.
But that's not how it was reported. Rather, it was reported that a black stripper was accusing members of the Duke lacrosse team of rape after she and another woman were hired to dance for them at a party. That method of reportage put race and class in the center of the story. Predictably, the right-wing media machine has kicked in, prompting mean-spirited attacks upon the accuser's character. Rush Limbaugh called the two women strippers "hoes," and later apologized saying "I regret you heard me say that." And Michael Savage referred to the alleged victim as a "Durham dirt-bag" and "dirty, verminous black stripper". And, it is in this tense atmosphere that the accuser flees from home to home, fearing for her safety. The players got lawyers immediately, who advised them to talk to no one. Duke University boosters hired big-time legal gunslinger Bob Bennett - who counts the Catholic Church as well as then-president Bill Clinton among his clients - to step in as spokesman for the newly-formed "Committee for Fairness to Duke Families".
We don't know exactly what happened that night. Initial DNA tests came back negative, incriminating no one. But something happened on the night of March 13th - something so compelling that Durham District Attorney Michael Nifong was prompted to say, "This case is not going away". Indeed, he asserts that the lack of DNA evidence "doesn't mean nothing happened. It just means nothing was left behind." The District Attorney is putting the case before a grand jury. And, while unresolved racial, gender and class issues dictate and divide perspectives, these facts are not in dispute.
The players say that they used aliases to hire strippers for a team party at the house rented by the team captains. The accuser goes to school full-time at North Carolina Central, and for the past two months has worked at an escort service to help pay her way through school and support her two children. This was the first time she had been hired to dance for a party, but she expected it to be a bachelor party of five men. She and her partner found themselves in a party of more than 30 white male lacrosse players. The one African American on the team wasn't there.
We know that the two women were abused. The accuser says they were met with racial slurs, and stopped dancing and decided to leave. "We started to cry," she said, "we were so scared." They left, but team members came out, apologized, and convinced them to come back. A neighbor reports seeing them leave and then come back, and confirms hearing racial slurs.
The accuser says once they returned, they were separated and she was pushed into a bathroom by three men, strangled, raped, kicked and beaten. The players deny that that happened, but they immediately retained lawyers and stopped talking. The woman was picked up afterward by police, who reported her as "passed out drunk." Admitted to a hospital, tests showed injuries consistent with rape and physical assault.
The team was notorious for its gross behavior. 15 of the 47 players had been previously charged with misdemeanors ranging from underage drinking to public urination. After the party one player sent out an email saying that he planned on inviting strippers over and then "killing the b.... as soon as they walk in and proceeding to cut their skin off," an act he said would be sexually satisfying.
Black women; white men. A stripper; and a team blowout. The wealthy white athletes - many from prep schools - of Duke; and the working class woman from historically black North Carolina Central. Race and class and sex. What happened? We don't know for sure because the Duke players are maintaining a code of silence.
The history of white men and black women - the special fantasies and realities of exploitation - goes back to the nation's beginning and the arrival of slaves from Africa. The patterns associated with this history arouse fears and evoke too many bad memories.
Duke University is clearly embarrassed by the incident. The president cancelled the lacrosse team's season, and accepted the resignation of its coach, who had taken the team to the national championship last year. He convened five panels to look into various aspects of the incident. At Duke, North Carolina Central, and schools across the country students and administrators began discussing once more the combustible realities of racial and sexual harassment on campus.
Durham, North Carolina where Duke is located is not the old South. Its Mayor is black, as is its police chief, and the majority of its city council. It is relatively prosperous, with low unemployment, home of high-tech companies. The largest black owned insurance company is located there as are two black owned banks. There is also poverty, disproportionately African American. And there is Duke, a private school stocked with affluent, mostly white kids, often referred to as the plantation.
But Duke is alas probably no worse than other schools in the way African American women are too often perceived. As Rebecca Hall of the University of California in Berkeley, who studies images of African American women in the culture, states, "Turn on a music video. A black woman is somebody who has excess sexuality....It's excess sexuality that white men are entitled to."
In the wake of the Duke scandal, black women across the country report on how often they are harassed or treated as simply objects available to hit on by white men. This image is magnified in our culture - and not simply by white producers, but on black music videos and black networks as well.
The Duke scandal should lead colleges across the country to hold searching discussions about racial and sexual stereotypes, exposing the myths that entrap so many. But it shouldn't take the brutalizing of a mother of two to raise these issues. Justice must be pursued at Duke. But Duke should not be treated as an isolated extreme - but as a goad to probing discussion and concerted action to lift students above the hatreds, the fears and the fantasies that still plague our society.