The Duke Case's Cruel Truth

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

She was black, they were white, and race and sex were in the air.

But whatever actually happened that March 13 night at Duke University -- both the reported rape and its surrounding details are hotly disputed -- it appears at least that the disturbing historic script of the sexual abuse of black women was playing out inside that lacrosse team house party.

Two black women performed an exotic dance. The white men in their audience shouted racial epithets, one of the women has said. Things got rough. Someone in the crowd held a broomstick aloft and shouted "I'm gonna shove this up you," the other woman told police when she reported being raped. As the women fled the house, a neighbor reportedly heard one of the men shout: "Hey bitch, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt."

In the sordid but contested details of the case, African American women have heard echoes of a history of some white men sexually abusing black women -- and a stereotype of black women as hypersexual beings and thus fair game.

The mainstream media have largely tiptoed around the brutal truth that has been discussed among black women in private conversations, in the blogosphere and on college campuses. It is that the Duke case is in some ways reminiscent of a black woman's vulnerability to a white man during the days of slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow, when sex was used as a tool of racial domination.

It was the kind of predatory behavior that found its way into modern culture in the old Rolling Stones song, "Brown Sugar." And the stereotype of black women as highly sexed, like the lascivious Jezebel from slavery days, is a recurring image in music videos today, sparking complaints from many women.

Racial history still resonates, still touches a deep and tender nerve. You can hear it, can hear the bitterness, in the way even a prim older woman discusses the Duke case.

"I think there's a tendency to downgrade black women and to discount the fact that, no matter what they are there to do, they are not just animals to be used," says Dorothy Height, 94, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women.

"Whatever she did, she was not there as a prostitute," Height says in her defense.

And yet, that is how she has been portrayed.

On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh called the exotic dancers in the Duke case two "hos." And on his TV show, Tucker Carlson called the alleged rape victim a "crypto-hooker."

Julianne Malveaux, an economist, author and commentator, says she was outraged to the point of distraction by all the ugly characterizations being made about the woman. For her, reports of the woman's medical condition tell the story.

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