Duke's Tenured Vigilantes
The scandalous rush to judgment in the lacrosse "rape" case.
Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Indeed, it was the Duke faculty that could be said to have cooked up the ambient language that came to clothe virtually all media descriptions of the assault case--that boilerplate about "race, gender, and class" (or maybe "race, gender, sexuality, and class") and "privileged white males" that you could not read a news story about the assault case without encountering, whether in the New York Times, the Washington Post, or Newsweek for example. The journalists channeled the academics.
Although outsiders know Duke mostly as an expensive preppie enclave that fields Division I athletic teams, the university's humanities and social sciences departments--literature, anthropology, and especially women's studies and African-American studies--foster exactly the opposite kind of culture. Those departments (and especially Duke's robustly "postmodern" English department, put in place by postmodernist celebrity Stanley Fish before his departure in 1998) are famous throughout academia as repositories of all that is trendy and hyper-politicized in today's ivy halls: angry feminism, ethnic victimology, dense, jargon-laden analyses of capitalism and "patriarchy," and "new historicism"--a kind of upgraded Marxism that analyzes art and literature in terms of efforts by powerful social elites to brainwash everybody else.
The Duke University Press is the laughingstock of the publishing world, offering such titles as Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity and An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures. Phrases such as "race, gender, and class" and "privileged white males" come as second nature to the academics who do this kind of writing, which analyzes nearly all social phenomena in terms of race, gender, class, and white male privilege. A couple of months after the lacrosse party, Karla F.C. Holloway, a professor of English and African-American studies at Duke, published a reflection on the incident titled "Coda: Bodies of Evidence" in an online feminist journal sponsored by Barnard College. "Judgments about the issues of race and gender that the lacrosse team's sleazy conduct exposed cannot be left to the courtroom," Holloway wrote. "Despite the damaging logic that associates the credibility of a socio-cultural context to the outcome of the legal process, we will find that even as the accusations that might be legally processed are confined to a courtroom, the cultural and social issues excavated in this upheaval linger."
There was a fascinating irony in this. Postmodern theorists pride themselves in discerning what they call "metanarratives." They argue that such concepts as, say, Christianity or patriotism or the American legal system are no more than socially constructed tall tales that the postmodernists can then "deconstruct" to unmask the real purpose behind them, which is (say the postmodernists) to prop up societal structures of--yes, you guessed it--race, gender, class, and white male privilege. Nonetheless, in the Duke lacrosse case the theorists manufactured a metanarrative of their own, based upon the fact that Durham, North Carolina, is in the South, and the alleged assailants happened to be white males from families wealthy enough to afford Duke's tuition, while their alleged victim was an impoverished black woman who, as she told the Raleigh News and Observer in a credulous profile of her published on March 25, was stripping only to support her two children and to pay her tuition as a student at North Carolina Central University, a historically black state college in Durham that is considerably less prestigious than Duke. All the symbolic elements of a juicy race/gender/class/white-male-privilege yarn were present. The theorists went to town.
The metanarrative they came up with was three parts Mandingo and one part Josephine Baker: rich white plantation owners and their scions lusting after tawny-skinned beauties and concocting fantasies of their outsize sexual appetites so as to rape, abuse, and prostitute them with impunity. It mattered little that all three accused lacrosse players hailed from the Northeast, or that there have been few, if any, actual incidents of gang rapes of black women by wealthy white men during the last 40 years. Karla Holloway's online essay was replete with imagery derived from this lurid antebellum template. She described the accuser and her fellow stripper as "kneeling" in "service to" white male "presumption of privilege," and as "bodies available for taunt and tirade, whim and whisper" in "the subaltern spaces of university life and culture." On April 13, Wahneema Lubiano, a Duke literature professor, wrote in another online article, "I understand the impulse of those outraged and who see the alleged offenders as the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus."
The academic-speak of Lubiano and Holloway was undoubtedly a bit arcane for the average reader, but there were plenty of news reporters and commentators to translate the pair's concepts into plain English. On April 22, Slate legal columnist Dahlia Lithwick penned what read like a pop version of Lubiano: "The Duke lacrosse team's rape scandal cuts too deeply into this country's most tender places: race and class and gender." Lithwick alluded to "[m]ounds and mounds of significant physical evidence" that a rape had occurred (this was after the meager results of the accuser's medical examination had been publicized as well as the negative DNA tests for the lacrosse team) and maintained that anyone who believed the players were innocent had a "creepy closet under the stairs" of his brain. Lithwick's position was that the facts of the case were essentially unknowable, as though this were Rashomon and not a matter of whether a grave felony had occurred that could send three young men to prison.
Following just behind Lithwick was Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post on April 25. "[I]t's impossible to avoid thinking of all the black women who were violated by drunken white men in the American South over the centuries," Robinson wrote. He continued: "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." He characterized Duke as a hotbed of "preppy privilege" and referred to the accuser as "the victim," whose main mistake had been choosing outcall stripping as a profession. On May 24, another Washington Post writer, Lynne Duke, weighed in with yet more Robinson-style rhetoric: "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." Like Lithwick, Lynne Duke placed great stock in the supposed results of the accuser's medical examination, which even then were known to be ambiguous.
This race/gender/class/white-male-privilege scenario that the press so eagerly bought into was supplemented by another animus that plagued several key Duke faculty members: a deep antipathy to the school's athletic programs--especially the lacrosse program, typically peopled by the graduates of exclusive prep schools who exemplify "white privilege" to the program's critics--and to the student-athletes who participate in them. The News & Observer article of March 25 that featured the uncritical interview with the accuser ("Dancer Gives Details of Ordeal") also quoted Paul Haagen, a Duke sports-law professor, stating that athletes who participated in "helmet sports" such as football, hockey, and lacrosse ("sports of violence" was Haagen's other term) were highly prone to violence against women. A Duke English professor, Houston Baker (who has since moved on to Vanderbilt), picked up the theme in a March 29 public letter to Duke's provost, Peter Lange: "How many more people of color must fall victim to violent, white, male, athletic privilege?" Calling for the immediate dismissal from the university of the entire lacrosse team and its coaches, Baker characterized the events of March 13-14 as "abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us." On March 31, Duke history professor William Chafe wrote an op-ed in the Chronicle declaring that "sex and race have always interacted in a vicious chemistry of power, privilege, and control" and comparing the behavior of the lacrosse team to the 1955 lynching in Mississippi of Emmett Till, a visiting black teenager from Chicago who might have whistled at a white woman.
Another Duke historian, Peter Wood, and Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology, began expressing hope that Duke would drop its preppie-ridden lacrosse program permanently and perhaps even withdraw from Division I competition altogether, according to a story by Peter Boyer in the September 4 New Yorker. In a June interview with an alternative newspaper, Wood characterized Duke's lacrosse players as "cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive--you could almost say openly hostile." According to Boyer, when Wood had received a negative evaluation from a student for a course he taught in 2004, he concluded that it had to have come from one of the ten lacrosse players taking the course. Wood also confided to Boyer salacious details of a booze-fueled and indisputably vulgar campus "hook-up" culture of casual sex and freewheeling parties among Duke's athletes and fraternity jocks that could have been torn from the pages of Tom Wolfe's Duke roman à clef I Am Charlotte Simmons. That novel had been pooh-poohed by most of the intellectual elite as the voyeuristic fantasies of an un-hip old man when it was published in 2004, but by 2006 many members of the Duke faculty, including Wood, were parroting its observations. As in Wolfe's novel, the good-looking Duke co-eds who attached themselves to lacrosse players (their campus nickname was "lacrosstitutes") were at the very apex of the Duke female hierarchy.
Karla Holloway's online article similarly called for unspecified curtailments in the Duke athletic programs. "[S]ports reinforces exactly those behaviors of entitlement which have been and can be so abusive to women and girls and those 'othered' by their sports' history of membership," she wrote. Holloway also scolded the Duke women's lacrosse team for showing solidarity with the accused men by wearing their jersey numbers on their sweatbands during a playoff game.
As might be expected, the press took up the anti-lacrosse meme as well, showering hostile attention on what had been previously regarded as a niche sport. On March 30, Baltimore Sun sports columnist David Steele described lacrosse as "a sport of privilege played by children of privilege and supported by families of privilege" and hinted that the Duke team ought to apologize en masse to the stripper-accuser. In a March 31 piece titled "Bonded in Barbarity," New York Times sports columnist Selena Roberts wrote: "At the intersection of entitlement and enablement, there is Duke University, virtuous on the outside, debauched on the inside. . . . The season is over, but the paradox lives on in Duke's lacrosse team, a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings." Roberts accused the team members of maintaining a "code of silence" to cover up the alleged crime.
On April 23, Fox News columnist Susan Estrich, a law professor at the University of Southern California, wrote an article titled "Why Would Accuser in Duke Rape Case Lie?" Seeming to channel Nifong (and also Jesse Jackson, who had entered the fray to offer the accuser a full scholarship to continue her studies at North Carolina Central), Estrich harped on the theme of stonewalling and wondered why no lacrosse parent had said to her son, "you go in there and tell the police the truth about what happened." It is hard to believe that Estrich was not aware by that date of Seligmann's airtight alibi, the procedurally flawed April 4 photo lineup, the negative DNA results for the 46 players (those were released on April 10), and repeated efforts by lawyers for the accused to present Nifong with evidence of their clients' innocence, including an April 18 meeting with Seligmann's attorney that Nifong curtly cut short. Instead, Estrich, taking an odd stance for a professor whose specialty is criminal law, castigated the three young men for having the audacity to "hire . . . lawyers." The purpose of this exercise of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was "to trash the victim and the prosecutor," she declared.
Newsweek had this to say about the lacrosse team in a May 1 story: "Strutting lacrosse players are a distinctive and familiar breed on elite campuses along the Eastern Seaboard. Because the game until recently was played mostly at prep schools and in upper-middle-class communities on New York's Long Island and outside Baltimore, the players tend to be at once macho and entitled, a sometimes unfortunate combination."
One likely reason for the speed and enthusiasm with which members of the Duke faculty and the media produced their morality play that simultaneously demonized lacrosse, wealth, the white race, the South, and the male sex was that it offered something otherwise missing in Nifong's case: a motive for the players, whose time-dated photographs at the March 13-14 party show them sitting torpidly on couches in the house living room, to rise suddenly in a state of power-drunk frenzy and commit gruesome acts of sexual violence. Means and opportunity were presumably there that night, but why would these "macho and entitled" young athletes who could have any Duke "lacrosstitute" of their choice free of charge, or, given their parents' money, pay for a real prostitute if they wanted to, bother with rape?
The race/gender/class/male privilege scenario also absolved its promulgators of having to consider the fact that the evidence of the players' guilt was flimsy from the outset and grew flimsier as each day passed. Indeed, Lubiano, in her online article, dismissed the whole idea of evidence--and thus legal guilt or innocence--as just another set of socially constructed "narratives" to be deconstructed by her. The accused were apparently guilty by reason of their "dominant" social position, which made them "perfect offenders" in Lubiano's eyes.
Not surprisingly then, some 88 Duke faculty members, including Holloway, Baker, and Chafe, signed a full-page advertisement drafted by Lubiano and published in the Chronicle on April 6. The "listening statement," as they called it, did not exactly endorse Nifong's confident assertions of criminal activity and guilt. What the ad did endorse was a series of campus demonstrations in late March and early April at which Duke students, outside groups such as the New Black Panthers, and (reportedly) some members of the Duke faculty had shouted "rapists" and "time to confess," hurled death threats, banged on pots outside lacrosse players' residences at early-morning hours, and distributed "Wanted" posters bearing the photographs of all 46 white lacrosse players. "To the students speaking individually and to the protestors making collective noise, thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard," the ad read. It also stated: "These students are shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman and to themselves." That suggested the 88 signers believed the accuser's story.
The faculty ad, together with such other faculty phenomena as Baker's letter and Chafe's op-ed, undoubtedly contributed to Duke president Richard Brodhead's impulsive and abrupt treatment of everyone at the university who might have had anything to do with either lacrosse or the March 13-14 party: firing the coach, canceling the season, suspending McFadyen over his vile email, suspending Seligmann and Finnerty after their indictments without meeting with either, and seeming to disbelieve the word of the lacrosse captains (including Evans), who had met with him on March 28 and assured him that they had fully cooperated with the police and that no sexual assault had taken place at the party. As former Harvard president Larry Summers learned to his chagrin in 2005, a college president courts big trouble by trying to buck a radicalized arts and sciences faculty. Furthermore, Brodhead seemed to be rewarding the "Group of 88" for its "thank you" ad in the Chronicle, setting up a "Campus Culture Initiative" to investigate racism and sexism at Duke on May 5 and appointing two of the ad's signers, Karla Holloway and anthropology professor Anne Allison, to chair two of its four committees and Peter Wood to chair a third.
"There just wasn't anything clear in Brodhead's statements that we were going to believe our own students," said Michael Gustafson, a Duke engineering professor who has criticized the university's handling of the March 13-14 incident. "There was obviously conduct with which Duke did not agree--parties with underage consumption of alcohol, hiring strippers, and if that was the whole story, then Brodhead was absolutely right to condemn it. The problem comes into play when there's a rape allegation. There was never a clear distinction drawn between those incidents and rape, so there was never a clear sense that the students were innocent until proven guilty."
As the summer progressed, evidence of that innocence mounted: Witnesses attested to the accuser's erratic behavior before and after the alleged crime, and her history of never-proven accusations of violence and gang rape. In June a faculty committee commissioned by Brodhead to investigate the lacrosse team and headed by Duke law professor James Coleman issued its report. The 25-page document found no evidence of racism or sexism on the part of team members and found both their academic performance and their off-campus behavior to be generally exemplary (Wood turned out to be the only one of ten surveyed pro fessors who had a problem with lacrosse players). "By all accounts, the lacrosse players are a cohesive, hard working, disciplined, and respectful athletic team," the report stated. What problems there were that had resulted in disciplinary citations by Duke centered around alcohol: underage drinking, booze in dorm rooms, noise, public urination, and on one occasion, stealing a pizza--but in that respect, the report found that lacrosse players were indistinguishable from the Duke undergraduate population in general. On June 13, Coleman, a criminal-law specialist, called for a special prosecutor to replace Nifong on the case. "It's unusual [for a prosecutor early in an investigation] to state that a crime occurred and that a group of people was responsible for it," Coleman told me. "That led to the assumption by a lot of people that a rape had occurred and that the accused were not cooperating with the police. That's why I was so outraged."
Nonetheless, news articles and columns continued to flow from the mainstream media dissecting the accused players' "privileged" backgrounds and the lush green lawns in front of their parents' suburban houses. Finnerty and two former prep-school classmates had previously been arrested for simple assault in a November 5, 2005, brawl outside a Washington, D.C., bar. It was the kind of first-time offense that usually results in a quick guilty plea plus community service (that was how his friends' cases were resolved), but because of his indictment in North Carolina, Finnerty was obliged to stand trial in order to be convicted (and placed on supervised probation). In a July 13 column, the Washington Post's Marc Fisher mocked the "battalions of lawyers" hired by Finnerty's family and the "upstanding young gentlemen in their blue blazers and pressed khakis" who stood as character witnesses for him. Fisher suggested that the bar fight "does open a window onto a larger truth" about Finnerty's propensity to "find fun in tormenting the innocent." (In a telephone interview, Fisher denied that he had been referring to the Duke sexual assault case.)
On June 27, washingtonpost.com law columnist Andrew Cohen excoriated some of his fellow journalists for reporting criticisms of Nifong's handling of the case (Newsweek by then had done an about-face and was openly skeptical of the rape charges). "I suspect race and money and access to the media have a lot to do with it," Cohen wrote. As late as August 25, the New York Times carried a front-page story parroting an ex post facto memorandum prepared by a Durham police officer at Nifong's request that detailed numerous injuries allegedly inflicted on the accuser that contradicted the contemporaneous reports of medical personnel and other police. That story was ripped to shreds a few days later in Slate by Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal. Taylor, along with Rush Limbaugh and a handful of bloggers--notably Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson and La Shawn Barber, an African-American woman--were nearly the only members of the media to express skepticism about the accuser's story from the outset.
Eventually, and especially after an October 15 episode of 60 Minutes showed a video of the accuser pole-dancing at a club a week after her supposed trauma, a handful of news commentators admitted they had rushed to judgment. On December 18, after Nifong dismissed the rape charges, Susan Estrich reversed herself and called for his removal from the case. Suddenly, it would seem, Estrich had discovered that the April 4 photo lineup procedures had been "unduly suggestive" and that the decision to indict the three players had been made before the results of the DNA tests on the victim's person were in. In an email, Estrich blamed Nifong for misleading outsiders and taking advantage of a disturbed woman who, "liar though she may be, is also a victim."
Lacrosse is now back at Duke, a group of Duke economics professors have signed a statement supporting Brodhead's decision to rescind the suspensions of Finnerty and Seligmann (the university had quietly changed those suspensions to less opprobrious administrative leaves at the end of the summer), and a D.C. judge vacated Finnerty's assault conviction right after Nifong dropped the rape charges. Neither Finnerty nor Seligmann is back on campus, however, and one very large issue still lurks: an angry and unrepentant Group of 88 on the Duke arts and sciences faculty.
Karla Holloway resigned her position as chairman of the Campus Culture Initiative's race committee to protest the re-admission of the two players. One of the signers, Duke English professor Cathy N. Davidson, published an op-ed in the News & Observer on January 5 that was sharply critical of that convenient scapegoat, Mike Nifong, but she mostly blamed "right-wing 'blog hooligans'" for trying to make her and the other signers look as though they had prejudged the lacrosse players. Tossing in a few red herrings, Davidson complained that the real "social disaster" in the Duke case was that "18 percent of the American population lives below the poverty line" and "women's salaries for similar jobs are substantially less than men's." Plus, we don't have "national health care or affordable childcare," Davidson wrote.
Other signers of the ad may be more worried. One of them, political science visiting professor Kim Curtis, has been sued by Kyle Dowd, a 2006 Duke graduate who alleges he got an F in her class after she discovered he was a lacrosse player (the university later upped the grade to a D, claiming a calculation error; Curtis did not respond to an email requesting a comment). Another signer, Duke philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg, explained in news interviews that he had signed the ad only to protest underage drinking at Duke and the hiring of strippers by students "when they could get as much hookup as they wanted from rich and attractive Duke coeds." Yet on January 17, several members of the Group of 88 published an open letter on the Internet, a defiant je ne regrette rien: "There have been public calls to the authors to retract the ad or apologize for it, as well as calls for action against them and attacks on their character. We reject all of these."
The week before, Brodhead had issued a "letter to the Duke community" that seemed to attempt to mollify the university's critics (including many alumni) who had criticized his peremptory actions against Finnerty and Seligmann. He described suspension as "not a disciplinary measure." Yet the letter seemed even more intent on placating the arts and sciences faculty, whom he described as victims of "blogs and emails" that attacked them "in highly repugnant and vicious terms." Brodhead described the sexual-assault allegations as having raised "troubling questions about sexual violence and racial subjugation." It was back to business as usual at Duke, back to the business of metanarratives.
Charlotte Allen is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.