Sunday, April 15, 2007

Privilege: A Second Look at the Duke Scandal

“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.

-Wendi Muse


Anonymous said...

The credibility of your comments is seriously called into question when you refer to the Durham DA as Mark Nifong.

It's hard to believe you know anything about the facts when you don't know the main villain's name.

Wendi Muse said...

My apologies for the error. That was an editing oversight on my part and has since been corrected. Thanks. ~Wendi Muse

Anonymous said...

You make a lot of interesting points. But here's the thing that bothers me. Why should we trust the media to give us facts in either direction? You say we should be careful not to allow the media to pull us into their manipulative circus but couldnt this technically be another attempt by said media to simply pull us in another direction?

Not to get too conspiracy theory on you...except, yeah actually to get very conspiracy theory on you; let's consider the money and influence involved. This could easily just be more manipulation...

Let's not completely dismiss the white male priviledge that still exists in America. I feel like that's what this sudden upset in the facts has put into question and it's dangerous. So many injustices, those that are systemic (and often supported by the biases of those who run the media and he justice system), go on daily in this country and are dismissed as due process.

I guess if this whole case is a farce arent those boys lucky theyre rich and part of the race on top because there are plenty of black men imprisoned on less evidence and for lesser crimes. Honestly if all that these boys have to do now is choose another ivy to attend, theyre doing pretty damn good considering.

Wendi Muse said...

Thanks again for your comments. I appreciate your feedback. With regard to trusting the media in one direction or the other, I agree with you--we shouldn't. But that is one point that I make in the piece. I am not saying that the men accused are innocent or that the accuser is a complete liar, or vice versa. I recognize that there are and will forever be pieces missing from this story and many others. But I do find that cases like this, especially considering that it proved to be such a role reversal (as normally black men are the ones demonized by the general public as rapists/sexual predators), it's interesting to look at the how the media plays up stereotypes (i.e. in this case: of athletes, or white males, or the wealthy) that we don't exactly confront as much.

Yes, systematic injustices still exist. I never say that they don't. If that is how what I have written was interpreted, I'd like to clarify that now. I recognize that white, male, upper class privilege exists in full force in the present. I am not one who thinks we have surpassed that as a society. Even though the men involved in the scandal experienced what they could classify as community ostracism and unfair treatment by the media and the DA, they had the financial means to hire attorneys who could find evidence to provoke reasonable doubt, a privilege that many people cannot say they share with the accused. In the article, I also acknowledge that even with the scandal on its deathbed, black women, in this instance, were still victims. Though the defense attorneys and investigators were able to demonstrate inconsistency in Mangum's story, disabling the potential of a physical representation of black female victimization, that in no way means that there were no victims of this scandal, and I state that clearly in my commentary regarding the media and political manipulation of the black female population in connection to this case as well as with regard the problems the scandal may provide in the future for women who find themselves in situations like that which Mangum alleged.

With regard to issues of privilege, we are still struggling to even talk about it, much less overcome it. However, I think that sometimes we are quick to judge if someone fits in that category, even if his actions may not be explicitly attributed to his privileged status. Simply because people like the men accused in this instance often find themselves in a better position than those who would be considered economically "inferior" to them, for example, does not mean that they should be stereotyped/pigeonholed as a result. That is honestly the same thing that people on the other end have presented as a grievance for hundreds of years, so I find it troubling to use the same device as a weapon. It's fighting fire with fire, and we are better than that.

lex said...

hi wendi
(it's alexis...from the coup's advisory board...looking forward to meeting you soon). I second the comment that asks about why media reports form the basis of your analysis here. I think your critique becomes much more powerful when you acknowledge that you are a media MAKER so you don't have to take what they give.
I would also recommend some powerful media sources created by black women (especially Aishah Simmon's NO! project...see and Charlotte Pierce-Baker's Surviving the Silence, or Toni Irving in the Fall 2004 issue of Black Renaissance...all of whom make it clear that what black women say before the law (especially black women working in the sex industry) gets distorted, disrespected and misused by the lenses of oppression through which it is mediated.
That means that WE as black women making media have to be SUPER intentional about honoring the humanity and the dignity that survivors of violence in our community deserve. Bottom line...I would encourage you NOT to reinscribe the privilege you so astutely point out by taking a white supremacist media/legal machine at its word.
Looking forward to working with you in the future...the second issue of the Coup looks great!
p.s. after re-reading your reply to an earlier comment...i would add that the tactics of white supremacy were never turned on the members of the lacrosse team who created the event in question. white supremacy remained white supremacy enacted through the court and the media. So white supremacy cannot be used as a device against itself. It is not even available as a device or "weapon" to those who do not already have white privilege. I look forward to your continued explorations of the functions of privilege in our communities. peace...

Wendi Muse said...

Jas a point of clarification, the "weapon" to which I am referring is that of stereotyping/prejudice based on one's status. Though I, for example, would not be considered a beneficiary of white privilege and thus cannot wield it, it is still very much possible for me to be racist, classist, sexist, etc towards others. In asserting that judgment, I would find myself as being very similar to those I would consider my oppressors, and I feel that what could be learned from having experienced oppression is to not use similiar methods of classification towards others, whether or not they exist on a higher playing field than I.

Also, I just want to say again that I am *not* blaming the alleged victim or excusing the alleged perpetrators of the crime. I am simply pointing out the problems of using stereotypes, particularly in defense of those who quite often are trapped by them.

Lastly, thanks for the information on the black women writers!

Truth n Justice said...

My My My...looky here. Wendi put herself out there and asked for EVERYONE in society to not be bigoted and what happens?...

Her own community comes down on here. The best rebuttals to her and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories of being being bought off, and the same ole same ole unsubstantiated "white supremacy" owns the media drivel.

Both theories are debunked by logic and reality. For one, the media is liberal and PC, and jumped ahead of the facts, accusing the white boys, and never really truly retracted that. So, their vested CAREER interest was to NOT tell the truth, that the boys were framed.

Oh, yeah, the so-called "white supremacy" of the "system" was working AGAINST the boys, as the DA, ADA, cops, city manager, mayer, etc, all were a part of the frame.

How does that fit into the various conspiracy theories? It contradicts them, silly! Result? DENY REALITY

Good work Wendi. Society needs people like you.

Truth n Justice said...

please forgive my typos ("Are", "Mayor"). Wrote it very quickly.

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