“If only DNA testing and high-quality attorneys had been available 100 years ago, maybe a few black mens’ lives could have been saved” was the first thought that came to mind on Wednesday night upon hearing the news of the exoneration of three Duke University lacrosse team players once accused of raping and assaulting a black woman in March of 2006. The case picked the scab of what some considered to be a healing wound of racial division in the quiet college down of Durham, North Carolina, and exposed deeply rooted feelings about some of the nation’s touchiest subjects including, but not limited to, interracial sex, rape, class, gender, and privilege. Now, in the aftermath of the case, as America is left to wonder what really happened the night of March 13, 2006, it is crucial for the public to ask new questions, though not about innocence or guilt, as those options have been exhausted. We should now wonder to what end the media and the legal system serve our interests, and how both institutions have altered what the color of our skin and the money in our bank accounts mean in a larger context of American society.
Race, class, and gender are, without a doubt, huge factors in what media decided to portray, what Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong attempted to prosecute, and what the general public chose to believe with regard to the Duke scandal. However, the way they unfolded as dynamics of what could have arguably become the case of the century, replacing the O.J. Simpson trial as a televised legal spectacle, was not quite what anyone had expected. The scandal served so many agendas that each person involved practically provided a post-civil rights era personification of the 2-dimensional characters of a 15th century morality play. The three Duke lacrosse players, David Evans, Reade Seligmann, and Collin Finnerty, represented upper-class, white, male Privilege; Crystal Gail Mangum, the accuser, represented lower-income, black, female Victimization, and Mike Nifong, the white Durham District Attorney, as he prepared evidence for the prosecution, represented the Voice for what was right, and what some seemed to feel would avenge the black community, women, and even the poor for the wrongs that had been committed against them for so long by the hand of Privilege. The press and community activists stood poised as the Chorus and the public waited anxiously for the curtain to rise.
After a year-long performance, the roles gradually reversed, leaving Privilege as Victim, Victim as Privilege, the Chorus virtually absent, the Voice completely silent, and an audience that frankly felt unsatisfied. I admit that I, like many others, was persuaded by the press, Mr. Nifong, and even Ms. Mangum to go along with what I now realize was a racist, classist, and sexist performance. I thought this instance was another assault on the underprivileged, when in actually, those victimized by the system in this case were those whom we so often consider to be behind its very shield: white, wealthy, privileged males.
Don't get me wrong; I am not writing to serve as an apologist for anyone involved with the scandal. Besides the rape allegations, other allegations regarding racial slurs, threats of violence, and failure to pay Mangum and her friend for their services that night in March will no longer be pursued now that the major charges have been dropped. But I feel that no matter what happened the night of the alleged incident, we must bear in mind that there are multiple sides to the story. We, as the viewing public, however, were presented with only one—that of the accuser. Unfortunately, her story was inconsistent from the beginning, and according to more recent evidence, created on the principle to receive monetary retribution from whom Mangum referred to simply as “the white boys.” Those who judged the case from the outside were so caught up in the media frenzy that they forgot to look for the facts. They also failed to see the similarities between this case and the rape scandals of the earlier part of the 20th century, many of which ended in hate crimes. Have we become so conditioned to what the media tells us is wrong that we can no longer judge for ourselves? Must we simply opt for a lynch mob mentality about possible wrongs committed to someone within our communities just because they may have been committed by someone different from us? Sometimes, people jump to action when an act or a statement is considered racist, sexist, and/or classist without taking a moment to consider whether or not they are entering into the throes of passionate protest with blind eyes and deaf ears. Isn’t pre-judging the three men accused in the Duke scandal an act of sexism, classism, and racism? Were those three men not judged by the accuser, the prosecutor, and the general public (including faculty members at Duke) based on their being white, upper middle class, and male?
Many activists argued that the outcome would have been totally different had the accused been black males and the accuser a white woman, and while I feel that such speculation is highly problematic, I couldn't help but wonder to myself, "exactly how different would it be?" If anything, the idea of black men as sexual predators toward white women is such a common, though fictional, part of our national narrative that I feel that few members of the press would bat an eye (unless the black men happened to be celebrities, as in the case of the Kobe Bryant rape scandal). The press needed a story that turned the typical narrative on its head, and the Duke scandal provided them with just that. It told a story more commonplace in our past (and present) than most Americans would like to acknowledge (read: women of color being sexually taken advantage of by white men), and that remains a secret absent from public dialogue and history books.
The Duke scandal demonstrates that despite our expectations of the law, not only blacks and the lower-income fall out of its favor, disrupting our general sentiments about police and the judicial system. The very man set to represent the prosecution, Mike Nifong, who referred to the players accused as a “bunch of hooligans” with “daddies who could buy them expensive lawyers," relied on witness statements taken by a police department that utilized intimidation and objectionable interrogation techniques, failed to speak directly with Ms. Mangum prior to making public accusations of the lacrosse players, and withheld substantial DNA evidence from the court. So much for a fair legal system. Though the formal charges of kidnapping, rape, and assault were dropped, the three men on trial now must work to rebuild their lives and their credibility. The two men who were expelled temporarily upon the initial indictment (one had graduated before the indictment was issued) will not return to Duke and are looking to continue their education elsewhere, not only to have a fresh start, but also because they feel as though they were antagonized by many of the Duke faculty members (88 of whom posted a newspaper ad in support of the accuser and used the case as a catalyst to promote their ideas regarding race and class issues on Duke’s campus), the Duke administration, and by many members of the Durham community (who put up a poster urging other lacrosse players to come forward with information).
Another important element to keep in mind in the aftermath of the Duke scandal is what continues to be its affect on the black community, particularly black women. Though the incident brought to light the ability for black women to organize, it also shed light on the fact that we are also still pawns in a game very much dictated by the media and by people seeking to fulfill their own agendas. Many have accused the press for manipulating the race, class, and gender related aspects of the case for the sake of higher ratings and an increased readership. Many also accuse Mr. Nifong, who gave over 50 interviews regarding the case to the press, of abusing his position as the District Attorney and seeking more attention for the story in order to receive support from blacks for an upcoming election. Both the press and a leader in the legal system used the perceived message that a "victory" against the privileged in this case would send to black women as a way to catapult their own careers. It just goes to show that we must be more critical of whom we allow to serve as our voice. I also worry that, in the future, women, and in particular, women of color, who experience sexual assault, especially if the assailant(s) is considered privileged, may be afraid to report the crime or even get help out of fear of not only public backlash, but also out of fear that the case would become a media circus.
Now that the scandal has come to a dead end, Nifong has extended an apology, but now faces disbarment on ethics violations, and the press and the bloggers that once demonized the accused have promptly placed foot-in-mouth by being virtually silent, as opposed to writing about the larger issues that unraveled with this case. Even if the case had officially come to fruition, would a conviction of the accused have really done anything positive for race relations in Durham or in this country? Not quite. Socio-economic, racial, and gender inequalities would still exist, and the case would serve only as a temporary fix to quell the emotions that are often manipulated by the press and public figures in national discussions of race. So what can be learned? Lynch mob mentality is not exclusive to whites. If anything, the aftermath of the Duke scandal should serve as an example of why enabling history to repeat itself, even if the actors have changed in appearance, is very much a dangerous game, and that we must avoid serving as players in it if we plan to accomplish real gains as we seek equality.