On April 18, 2006, three white members of the Duke University Mens Lacrosse Team were arrested for sexually assaulting a female exotic dancer during an off-campus party a month prior. The athletes were indicted on charges of first-degree forcible rape, first-degree sexual offense and kidnapping. The alleged victim, an African-American and single mother of two, lived in Durham, North Carolina, a former tobacco stronghold that later emerged the struggling low-income community best known for accommodating one of the most affluent universities in the nation.
The incident matured the enmity that exists between Duke and Durham’s predominantly black residents — a hostility that on one hand seems ironic since Duke employs a significant percentage of Durham natives for non-faculty positions, yet understandable, given the stark differences between both communities that run the gamut of race, class and erudition.
As a student writer, I penned an article for a campus newsletter examining the allegations — not that of the rape, the charges were unequivocally dropped approximately a year later amidst a piling heap of evidence that suggested otherwise — but the allegations made by the second exotic dancer in attendance that at least one lacrosse player used racial epithets towards her during a hostile exchange. These accounts were compelling.
WATCH NIGHTLY NEWS’ COVERAGE OF THE DUKE LACROSSE SCANDAL BACK IN APRIL, 2006:
In a 60 minutes interview with the late Ed Bradley, the dancer said she was called a “ni**er” after she admittedly called one of the lacrosse players a “little [expletive] white boy,” and then, the wound that presumably cut the deepest given the veracity of the male ego, mocked the player for having to pay for female services. The dancer said her belittling the player and even making a reference to his race did not warrant a racial slur as venomous as the n-word, and that a more reciprocated and paralleled response should have included an insult making use of the term “black girl.” At some point during the exchange, a nearby neighbor overheard a lacrosse player evoke a grotesque pillar of slavery to further insult the black dancer, yelling, “Thank your grandfather for my cotton shirt.”
Forgive me for the lack of chronology — this exchange occurred as the dancers were leaving the party. Earlier in the night, 10 or so minutes into their performance to be exact, one of the lacrosse players, fairly inebriated by all accounts, asked the ladies if they had brought any “sex toys” that could be incorporated into their act. The dancer replied they had not, after which the player responded, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, we’ll just use this on you,” referring to — wait for it — a broomstick. The comment instantly jolted the dancer, telling Bradley she feared for what the rest of the night held if such a vulgar proposition was made mere minutes into their performance.
People were aghast by the rape allegations, but when these details surfaced, the race and gender student-advocacy groups and several members of the academia became incensed. Student groups and Duke professors orchestrated rallies, vigils and panel discussions to give credence to the national epidemic of sexual abuse and the silent victims that never speak up for fear of a backlash many believed the alleged victim was then experiencing.
The Group of 88, an ad hoc coalition of concerned professors, published an ad in the student newspaper shortly after these details were made public that read like a litany of quotes from students anonymously confessing their concerns for the racial and gender discord that buoyed Duke’s social scene. One student commented, “Being a big, black man, it’s hard to walk anywhere at night, and not have a campus police car slowly drive by me.” “You go to a party, you get grabbed, you get propositioned, and then you start to question yourself,” lamented another. One student questioned the university’s underwhelming response to the allegations right after the incident, “I can’t help but think about the different attention [that would have been given], if the [lacrosse players] had been not just black, but participating in a different sport, like football, something that’s not so upscale.”
Whenever asked to describe the zeitgeist on campus during this time, I always hearken to the nation’s mood during the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial — polarizing. Student reactions varied. The team’s closest apologists — often female, and thus dubbed the “lacrosstitutes,” vehemently protested the indictments with an Assata Shakur-esque flair, printing flyers and distributing wrist bands to counter the smear campaign they believed was being launched against their friends. Other students found it best to adhere to the tenets of due process and keep their mouths shut while the legal realm deliberated. Still others found it imperative to express their frustrations over the social atrocities committed that night and demanded atonement for them. Some students maintained their silence, stunned perhaps, wishing the hoopla (and myriad news vans that littered main campus) would just go away.
Relations between Duke and Durham suffered. Students received an e-mail from campus security forewarning everyone to heed caution when leaving campus and entering downtown Durham, as there had been reports of planned drive-by shootings that presumably intended any Duke affiliate an ideal target. Campus security also implemented tighter restrictions on dorm visitations. When the New Black Panther Party came to town to provide security for the alleged victim and to seek justice, they were turned away at the campus gates, but not before their statements reverberated throughout, “We will defend our black women. [The] New Black Panther Party and black men is [sic] not going to stand by, idly by, and let our black women be raped.”
Even at the onset, it seemed the country had gravitated towards this incident for many reasons, chief among them: David had finally sucker-punched Goliath. Let me explain.
Often times, people perceive the match-ups between Duke and its opponents as a sort of David-and-Goliath arrangement, with Duke representing the former, the establishment — a well-resourced school and apparatus. By virtue of their gender, race and sport, the lacrosse players embodied this perception. It seemed people all over the nation sought a certain degree of pleasure from the grief experienced by those who stood accused because they were white, male and privileged.
Race, gender and class aside, it is important to note several Duke students sincerely felt this particular team had it coming — a viewpoint based largely on their antics. Like the lawless monolith that was Goliath, they witnessed the lacrosse team carry on unruly and unchecked, a male alumnus describing them as a “rowdy, rambunctious and privileged” group gripped by an elitist attitude whose Friday-night frolics would be felonious if were committed by Duke’s predominantly black football team. Worst, he felt their supporters purported their innocence by virtue of this very privileged identity, as if “there’s no way that these rich guys who grew up in upper middle-class New England could possibly do something like this.”
He also found fault with the issue of race superseding gender in several of the discussions that ensued in the aftermath. “The main issue should have been sexual assault and gender equality, but [people] can’t look at it without the racial lens. And then, there’s no way to even try to defend either side without it being, ‘Oh you’re just saying they didn’t do it because they’re white,’ or ‘You’re just saying that they did do it because she’s black,’ and I thought that just crowded the whole situation.”
Even as the evidence for legal wrong-doing became scarce and their innocence increasingly apparent, some students, particularly the racial minority and the low-income, still could not embrace the team as wholeheartedly as others. Yes, the legal case was spearheaded by an overzealous district attorney hellbent on seeing the players rot in prison, but when one couples the racial insults that surfaced from that night with African-Americans’ 400-year rendezvous with an unjust criminal system that at several points in time seemed to intrinsically function to disenfranchise them, black folk just weren’t that sympathetic.
I even recall several students thinking it was an opportune moment for influential (read: white) people to be subjected to the biases and corruptions that can rear its head in the judiciary system whenever race and class are influential factors. Don’t cry for them, Argentina. This was a common sentiment amongst several student groups.
When the charges were dropped a year later, the campus breathed a collective sigh of relief, but for many, it was a bitter sweet ending, “Yes, there was no proof that they actually committed a crime…but there was proof that they did something morally wrong, that they disrespected a woman,” a former Duke athlete and current attorney explains. (The alleged rape victim has since gone on to accrue a disturbing criminal record including a recent assault charge for stabbing her boyfriend — police expect to update the charges to murder as the wound emerged fatal.)
Five years later, these sentiments still hold. As I interviewed minority Blue Devils and listened to their testimonies about this tumultuous time in the university’s history, I heard an array of responses that made explicit and at times subliminal uses of race and class to justify their indifference towards the plight of the indicted lacrosse players.
In the same month of my outreach, ESPN aired the latest installment from the “30 for 30” documentary series profiling the “Fab Five”, the nickname for the University of Michigan’s all-black recruitment class that battled Duke for college basketball supremacy in the early 1990s. When Jalen Rose commented that some Michigan players perceived Duke’s black athletes as “Uncle Toms”, I immediately thought of the rape case and the conflicting feelings fellow black alumni endured as members of an esteemed and elitist institution. I tweeted, “I can’t be the only black Blue Devil that felt torn about their identity as a “Blue Devil.” The elitism that came with that. Especially if you come from humble beginnings.”
Simultaneously, another black alumnus posted a poignant tweet that read like a direct response: “I h8 when black ppl feel guilty abt being well-educated. Do U think Jewish ppl feel guilty? No. & I surely dont either.” A third black alumnus churned in the mix to distinguish the two issues at play in Jalen Rose’s “Uncle Tom” comment: race and class, “I ain’t gonna lie, I felt like Jalen when I first got to Duke…then I realized “blackness” has little to do with class.”
Both contexts — the Duke lacrosse case and the Fab Five’s remarks — reveal the identity struggle black people undergo when they cross the class or erudition threshold into more affluent and well-versed spaces. The process of self-appraising oneself to ensure we are not willingly divorcing ourselves from our racial history and pride is ongoing, and like any introspective journey, can be daunting and tiresome. It’s a balancing act for many to reconcile their humble beginnings with their privileged present. It’s also interesting to see which facet of one’s identity — be it race, class or gender — pipes the loudest when circumstances call for a social referendum on a complex issue.