Duke rape case exposes system’s contradictions
Published Apr 4, 2006 10:27 PM
Since last week,
one of the most elite universities in the United States has been under national
scrutiny for its grossly incompetent handling of a sexual assault investigation
involving one of its top-ranked athletic teams. The firestorm that this case
unleashed has galvanized residents in the working-class city of Durham and the
entire Triangle, N.C., community. For many people in this region, the incident
and its aftermath stand as a hard reminder that systemic oppression remains
alive and well in the 21st-century U.S. South.
Demonstrators on Duke’s campus.
University officials had
been aware of the allegations of rape and assault against members of the
school’s top-ranked lacrosse team since March 14, but for nearly two
weeks, no one from either athletics or administration made any public response
about the incident. Duke lacrosse head coach Mike Pressler remained in denial
right up until a scheduled March 25 match against Georgetown, not even bothering
to address the allegations when pressed by a reporter from WRAL-5 TV on March
24. As the scandal began making national headlines, Duke President Richard
Brodhead and athletics director Joseph Alleva finally decided to hold a press
conference on March 28.
For four days before March 25, local media
reported that a woman working as an exotic dancer had accused three players from
Duke University’s lacrosse team of beating, raping, robbing, and nearly
strangling her at a team party on March 13. At this point, the media reported
that all 47 of the team’s members refused to talk to police, and that 46
of the players submitted DNA samples at the request of the Durham County
district attorney (the lone African-American member of the team was excluded
from testing because the victim said all her assailants were white).
several key aspects of the attack were conveniently omitted in the early
reports, the most critical being the race and class background of the victim and
her attackers. This initial obfuscation would later elicit strong anger from the
At press time, no one has been formally charged in this
On March 13, two African-American women were hired to perform as
exotic dancers for a team party at the home of the team’s three captains.
The single-story house, at 610 North Buchanan Blvd., is located in Dur
ham’s historic Trinity Park neighborhood near Duke’s East Campus.
This home was one of 14 houses recently purchased by the university in response
to repeated nuisance complaints from homeowners in the neighborhood, who were
fed up with constant all-night partying, public inebriation, and disruptive
behavior on the part of obnoxious Duke students. The university had plans to
sell the homes after their current leases expired.
The women arrived at
the home under the impression that they would be performing for a bachelor party
of five men, but when they arrived, they encountered a drunken lacrosse team
party with over 40 men present, apparently all members of the team. According to
later police reports, the women were immediately subjected to racist and
misogynistic slurs upon entering the house.
As the victim herself—a
mother of two and a full-time student at historically Black North Carolina
Central University—told Raleigh’s News and Observer, the women
became so terrified by this verbal abuse that they decided to leave. A next-door
neighbor told the paper that he personally witnessed white men verbally abusing
the women with racist slurs as they tried to leave. As they were approaching
their car, one of the men from the house came over to them and apologized for
the racist abuse. He pleaded with the women to come back inside and perform at
the party, and the accuser returned to the house. Once she was inside, she was
allegedly pulled into a bathroom by three men, where they subjected her to a
brutally violent rape and beating. The victim says she was vaginally, anally,
and orally penetrated, punched, kicked, and nearly strangled by the three men
for about 30 minutes. After she was able to escape from the house, she and the
other woman drove to a local supermarket, where a security guard called Durham
police around 1:30 a.m. on March 14.
When the violently racist nature of
the attack was finally revealed to the public on March 24, community outrage was
swift and immediate. Durham residents quickly set up listservs and message
boards in order to coordinate community response and planning. On March 25, a
silent demonstration was held in front of the lacrosse field to protest
Duke’s match against Georgetown, holding signs bearing strong messages
such as “Don’t be a Fan of Rapists.” As it turned out, Duke
forfeited the George town match at the last minute, in anticipation of mounting
public anger. Later that night, community members held a candlelight vigil in
front of the house at 610 North Buchanan to express support for the victim. The
very next morning, activists from across the Triangle gathered in front of the
house and staged a “Cacerolazo”wake-up call—a traditional form
of protest used by women in Latin America to publicly shame rapists and
batterers. The participants banged on pots and pans while powerfully chanting
calls for justice and solidarity.
This case has also shone a national
spotlight on long-simmering resentments between majority-white Duke and the
ethnically diverse working-class city in which the elite school resides. As the
New York Times reported on March 31, Duke received a fifth-worst ranking out of
361 colleges in the latest Princeton Review survey of so-called
“town-gown” relations—the interaction between a major academic
institution and its surrounding community. In the same survey, Duke was also
ranked sixth in having little or no interaction between students of different
social classes and ethnic groups. Indeed, many African-American students at Duke
say that racist treatment from white classmates is fairly common on campus. As
graduate student Danielle Terrazas Williams told the Independent Weekly:
“This is not a different experience for us here at Duke University. We go
to class with racist classmates, we go to gym with people who are racists.
That’s not special for us.”
Unfortunately, both the media and
Duke’s administration are desperately trying to obscure the blatant racism
and misogyny of this case. Many media outlets make a point of referring to the
victim as a “stripper” or “exotic dancer,” while framing
the allegations of racist verbal abuse as mere race “issues” or
“tensions.” Many outlets dare ask if this case has anything to do
with race at all, as if sexual violence can ever be separated from systemic
oppression. At the March 28 press conference, athletic director Alleva stated
publicly that during his entire 26 years in Duke athletics, he has seen
“no racial problems” with the lacrosse team or in the entire sports
program. It is unclear if Alleva consulted athletes of color before making this
At N.C. Central University this week, public events have been
scheduled to show support for the victim in the case. These include speak-outs
and a candlelight vigil in front of the campus Student Union on April 3. As
junior Maya Jackson told Black College Wire, “We as a university do not
accept this. This is an issue that affects all of us.”
writer is with FIST-Fight Imperialism-Stand Together-youth group.
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