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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Different questions about the Duke lacrosse story

One of the questions that arises out of the Duke lacrosse story is the extent to which a university should support their students in the midst of a crisis like this story became. At first the university tried to walk a fine line between saying that they wanted the course of justice to work its way out without any action by the university other than to support the investigations of the police.

If the dancer's story were true, Duke would have been seen to have harbored monsters in one of their elite sports programs. But, if it were not true, than their students would be victims of a massive injustice. But, soon the university started leaning against its students. The president abruptly canceled the team's season. Why do that unless there were an indication that the story might be true? 88 professors signed a letter decrying the behavior of the lacrosse team and basically calling for the team to be disbanded. The coach was fired. All perfectly reasonable actions.....if the kids are guilty. But premature actions if they are victims of a lying dancer and an overeager and politically motivated district attorney.

Although not legally, in some ways a university is in loco parentis to their students. As we've seen with the parents of the three indicted students, parents are not abandoning their children just because an accusation has been made against them. The university is not so supportive. Even as more and more evidence has come to light casting serious doubt on the district attorney's case, the university is still trying to be strictly neutral. So no parentis role there.

In fact, few people associated with the university have had anything to say in support of the students. Robert K.C. Johnson in another of his strong essays on the situation at Duke notes that there are only six such people
Coach K became just the fifth person in the employ of Duke University (joining women’s lacrosse coach Kerstin Kimel, who was the first to speak out; interim men’s lacrosse coach Kevin Cassese; and law professors James Coleman and Robinson Everett) to speak up in any way for the lacrosse players, either as students or simply in terms of their due process rights.
That really is amazing. Presumably, lots of people at the university have come into contact with the boys on the team and many even spoke well of them to the professors charged with reporting on the lacrosse team's conduct. But they just don't want to go public with support for the team members. Was there not any professors who knew these kids, particularly the senior, and were willing to state publicly that they didn't believe the allegations? Is it that the professors believed the stories or did they just not know the kids well or were they simply scared to go public with their support?

And, as Johnson so fiercely points out, some professors are going far in the opposite direction. Despite all the evidence that has come out to exculpate the three defendants and the lack of any evidence that inculpates them, we still have a couple of professors speaking and writing publicly about what this episode says about the teammembers and the university. (Read Johnson's post for the details and links.)

Meanwhile, it has been disappointing to see how the university, having already decided not to support the students when the accusations first came out, is now saying so little even when there is much evidence to show that three of its students and the entire team have most probably been viciously maligned by the town's justice system. The least they could be doing is pressing publicly for the district attorney to bring the case to a speedy trial.

I suppose that there might be grand conclusions one could make about sports, jocks, elite universities, racism, and our entire culture regarding this story. But that would only be valid if the dancer's story is true. If the story is, as seems most likely now, totally false, then all we have is the story of a bunch of college athletes who, on their spring break had a party, drank alcohol, and hired a stripper. Perhaps there are conclusions we can make about college kids, sex, and alcohol based on that story, but it wouldn't be all that unique or interesting. In fact, the real story would be about the mix of the very fragile psychology of the dancer, the political ambitions of the district attorney, and the desire of the public, including many (88) Duke professors and those in the media, to rush to justice based on her story. That is a subject that should lead a lot of sociologists, lawyers, and journalists to ponder where our society is today in 2006 (and not looking back to the days of segregation and a bigoted justice system in a southern town). I'm still waiting for those analyses, although it didn't seem that we had to wait all that long for the first set of analyses to all come dripplingly off the pens of a host of writers based on the idea that the woman's story was true.

Immediately after the story broke, we had a lot of people just assuming that this was mélange of the worst sorts of rich jock behavior that we're accustomed to seeing in movies from "Animal House" to "Revenge of the Nerds" mixed in with the nation's sorry history of racist relations. The storyline was all set. But now it seems that there is a different story that has taken place. The cable news shows are extremely willing to get ratings day after day by dissecting all the weaknesses of the district attorney's case. But, perhaps it is time to delve deeper into what this story says about America in 2006.

I'm looking for people to start going further and examine where we are at as a society that a woman could make these sorts of horrible allegations and a district attorney could conduct such a seemingly shoddy investigation violating all sorts of professional ethics and there isn't a thing that the defendants can do. Even if they're found innocent, they have no recourse against the district attorney and the Durham city system that has been so unjust to them. What does this say about the power of a district attorney in our system? Is there a lesson of reverse racism that we have seen play out in this story? Was the media, particularly the local media such as the Raleigh News and Observer, totally biased in the early days of this story in favor of the accuser? Do we have a politically correct system that protects the privacy of the accuser but does little to protect those accused? I'm ready for some journalists and analysts to go beyond dissecting the weaknesses of the DA's case and to start in after the these other questions.

LaShawn Barber has said that this case has an aura of the Scottsboro Boys in reverse. If that is at all true, don't we want to figure out why this has happened. And will analysts be willing to examine that the role that reverse racism had in making the DA actually more likely to believe the accuser's story and to bring the case to court and made those 88 professors more likely to write their disgust at the team's supposed behavior? Yes, the young men are alleged to have said some pretty ugly racist comments to the women. But, the women, at least the second dancer, are allged to have made some racist comments first. That part of the story doesn't receive a fraction of the attention that the comments the Duke players are supposed to have said. Are we seeing the media's discomfort with clearly looking at the behavior of the black women in that little detail?

If the boys are totally innocent of the charges of rape, we have been witnessing a very disturbing side of what can happen in our justice system plus in how organizations in the media and at the university have reacted. Is it possible, that rich white defendants, contrary to all of our history and all of our stereotypes, are actually receiving more discrimination now than if they hadn't been wealthy white jocks? Who is going to write that story?

1 comment:

halides1 said...

This is a fine summary of how things stood as of the summer of 2006. Fortunately, some on the Duke faculty did stand up, and some in the media reconsidered their positions.