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Tough Questions in Durham

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Duke University scandal is murky, like many cases of alleged rape -- especially cases of alleged rape in which the accused can afford top-shelf legal counsel. It will be some time before we know what really happened that night between a house full of rowdy lacrosse players and the two "exotic dancers" they hired as entertainment, and it's quite possible we'll never have a truly satisfactory answer. What we do have are disturbing questions and a rich historical context. Those, for the moment, are more than enough to ponder.

The context? A bunch of jocks at an elite university in the once-segregated South -- privileged white kids who play lacrosse, a sport that conjures images of impossibly green suburban playing fields surrounded by the Range Rovers of doting parents -- decide to have a party, so they call an escort service and hire a couple of strippers. The hired help arrives: two black women, one of them a 27-year-old single mother who is working her way through North Carolina Central University, a decidedly proletarian institution across town. Within a few hours the woman becomes simply "the accuser" when she tells police she was raped by some of those white jocks.

That's the basic scenario, and it's impossible to avoid thinking of all the black women who were violated by drunken white men in the American South over the centuries. The master-slave relationship, the tradition of droit du seigneur , the use of sexual possession as an instrument of domination -- all this ugliness floods the mind, unbidden, and refuses to leave.

Then there's the fact that the incident happened at Duke, which has never been able to shake its aura of preppy privilege, its reputation as a place where students are downright arrogant in their sense of superiority.

A couple of basic questions tend to get overlooked. What's the deal with any group of college students thinking it's a perfectly normal thing to hire strippers for a party? What do their parents say when they see that charge on the credit card bill? For that matter, what's the deal with a college student, whatever financial pressure she might be under, thinking that working at night as an outcall stripper is a perfectly acceptable -- and safe -- way to support herself? It's not blaming the victim to ask if she couldn't have made better choices.

Those questions have to wait, however, while we pore over DNA test results, witness statements and dueling accounts of the evening's events from prosecutors and defense lawyers.

For now, all we can do is expand the context somewhat. Not much attention has been paid to the fact that Duke has done much better than most of the nation's elite universities in promoting diversity in its student body. Around 30 percent of Duke students are minorities, including more than 11 percent who are African American -- approximately the percentage of blacks in the general population. It's also true that the most esteemed, almost revered, member of the Duke faculty is the African American historian John Hope Franklin.

Yet Duke is still a place where the lacrosse team, which has but one black player, hires two black strippers for an alcohol-fueled house party. Was this just another night in Durham?

The university's president, Richard H. Brodhead, may emerge from this awful mess as a true hero, because he seems to understand the need to deal not only with the specific allegations but with the context and the questions as well. In an extraordinary letter to the Duke community, Brodhead noted that some troubling issues have suddenly been brought to "glaring visibility" and must be dealt with.

"They include concerns about the culture of certain student groups that regularly abuse alcohol and the attitudes these groups promote," Brodhead wrote. "They include concerns about the survival of the legacy of racism, the most hateful feature American history has produced. . . . [They] include concerns about the deep structures of inequality in our society . . . and the attitudes of superiority those inequalities breed."

Brodhead wrote of "an attitude of arrogant inconsiderateness that reached its peak in the alleged event but that had long preceded it" -- an attitude that, to many outsiders, "has seemed to be the face of Duke."

He announced an immediate set of responses, among them a "campus culture initiative" designed to get at these underlying issues of race, privilege and alcohol. It will be fascinating to watch as Duke attempts some educating that parents should have taken care of long ago.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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