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.
After the lacrosse party, a physician and a forensic nurse examined the woman at the Duke University Hospital emergency room and found "signs, symptoms and injuries consistent with being raped and sexually assaulted vaginally and anally," a court document says.
"Whatever else happened, this woman has been violated somehow," Malveaux says. "Is there no sympathy?"
Revelations about the rape case, and the attacks by Limbaugh and Carlson, coincided with other high-profile swipes taken at black women. There was the case of Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and the radio talk show host, Neal Boortz, who called her a "ghetto slut" because he didn't like her new hairdo.
Even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was pounded by this wave of abuse when another radio host, David Lenihan, called her a "coon." (He later reportedly explained he was discussing her prospects at the NFL and ran the words together when he tried to say "coup" and "NFL." It came out as "coon." Twice. The fallout cost him his job.)
"African American women are not systematically valued in our society," Malveaux says. And so the alleged Duke rape victim is getting "no benefit of any doubt."
Race is a subtext, at Duke, in the battle that is what women's rights advocates describe as a routine and punishing part of most high-profile rape cases: the tug of war over the image and credibility of a rape victim.
Though the woman in the Duke case is a psychology major at North Carolina Central University, a Navy veteran and a mother of two, those facts have been obscured by the troubling details that have emerged about her life. She had been arrested for drunken driving after a police chase. She had reported a rape in the past; no one was prosecuted. Implying instability, defense attorneys reportedly have sought records on any mental problems she may have had. And they have called her a flat-out liar.
It is the classic "nuts and sluts" defense, says Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women and a former prosecutor.
"It reminds me to some extent of the William Kennedy Smith case, where there was a very organized effort to cast doubt on the victim," says Susan Estrich, a law professor at the University of Southern California and a rape survivor. Smith was acquitted in 1991 after a judge's ruling that neither his sexual history nor the alleged victim's could be aired in open court.
Not spared in the game of image-battering, the lacrosse players have been portrayed by some as privileged, racist brutes prone to binge drinking, who preyed upon a troubled and struggling young woman.
David Forker Evans, 23, of Bethesda was charged May 15 in the case and said that neither he nor his co-defendants, Reade Seligmann, 20, and Collin Finnerty, 19, were guilty. The defense contends there was no sex; that the women performed their dance, then stopped when things got verbally rough.
The alleged victim has not come forward publicly herself. In the court of public opinion, the case is a tangle of rumor, speculation and innuendo.
At a news conference given by one of the defendant's attorneys in Durham, community activist Victoria Peterson raised a question she has heard privately: Did the partyers specifically request black dancers that night? Peterson's question was ignored.
"White men have always been fascinated with black women over the years. That's nothing new," says Peterson, who launched Durham Citizens Against Rape and Sexual Abuse in response to this case. With outlets such as BET and others portraying African American women as highly sexed, "young white boys, they want to touch, they want to see," Peterson says.
But Kim Roberts, the second dancer, told the News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh that the lacrosse players told her they requested a Hispanic dancer and a white one. Because of her mixed Asian and African American heritage, she said, they assumed she was the Hispanic. So when the second woman showed up, were the men annoyed that she was black? Were they angered? Roberts did not say. It's yet another of the case's puzzles.
Pictures taken during the lacrosse party and released to "The Abrams Report" show the dancer wearing a red bustier and garter set. There is a picture of her lying on the floor surrounded by men with beers. There is a picture of her collapsed on the front steps of the lacrosse house.
Whether she was drunk or drugged is not publicly known. Roberts has said that the woman's demeanor changed dramatically after she drank something the men offered them as soon as they arrived. Roberts says she refused the drink.
What happened next is disputed. But one of the dancers ended up in the emergency room showing physical signs of rape.
Even from the earliest hours of the investigation, though, her story was doubted, deemed not credible, the university said after an internal probe into its handling of the case.
The Duke report says the victim at first alleged that 20 lacrosse players had raped her, but then changed her count to three. Later, the Durham city manager challenged that account, saying it was based on a Duke police officer overhearing a snippet of a Durham city police officer's phone conversation about the case. Nonetheless, the conclusion that the victim wasn't credible made its way through the university's chain of command.
"The discounting by police and others of the importance of the seriousness of the allegations may have reflected a belief that the matter would not be pressed because the charging party was not that important or reliable," says the report, available on the university's Web site.
But what a Duke campus policewoman saw at the hospital suggests something more serious than an episode that would merely blow over, the report says.
The policewoman said that the woman was "crying uncontrollably and visibly shaken . . . shaking, crying and upset."
And, some fear, very much on her own.