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Privilege Meets Protest at Duke University

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In Durham North Carolina, a scant three miles separate Duke from historically black North Carolina Central University (NCCU), but the divide more resembles a canyon. The seismic shock of the recent and now notorious rape charges levied against the Duke Lacrosse team has upturned this complex cultural cocktail of a city, occupied by an aloof and narcissistic private school catering mainly to wealthy students rarely seen outside the gothic cloister of their campus. Tuition at Duke is $43,000 per year, more than four times the cost of NCCU and about $3,000 more than the median joint family income in Durham.

The case in question is by now widely known; Lacrosse players at an elite campus hired two young African- American women as exotic dancers, one a student at NCCU. While details aren't yet clear, the woman has injuries consistent with being raped and sodomized. Lawyers for the team have gone on a remorseless counter-offensive. A new well-heeled booster club called the Committee for Fairness to Duke Families hired the ultimate authority in smearing women who "cry rape": Bill Clinton's former attorney Bob Bennett. Bennett has already begun, saying, "A lot of innocent young people and the families are being hurt, and unfortunately this situation is being abused by people with separate agendas. It is grossly unfair, and cool heads must prevail."

Bennett and his team have also released personal details about the assault victim. This gets the spotlight off the confirmed squalidness of the case. 911 calls report racist epithets being screamed by men in the party house. Ryan McFayden, a sophomore on the Lacrosse squad, sent an e-mail dated the night of the party describing in morbid detail his fantasy of torturing the exotic dancers, saying, "I plan on killing the bitches as soon as they walk in and proceeding to cut their skin off while cumming in my Duke issue spandex." The same McFayden had the unholy arrogance to show up at the Take Back the Night Rally on campus and while sexual assault survivors gathered in a circle, he stood on the sidelines giving interviews with the Chronicle, Duke's odious student paper.

The racial climate on campus is utterly appalling and this isn't isolated in the world of Lacrosse. Others on campus have noted parties with vile themes, like the "Viva Mexico" bash where students handed out "Green Cards" for invitations. Danielle Terrazas Williams, a grad student at Duke, told the Independent, a local weekly "This [the rape] is not a different experience for us [African-Americans] here at Duke University. We go to class with racist classmates, we go to gym with people who are racists. That's not special for us." Commenting on the persistent sexual harassment faced by black women at Duke, Williams continued, "[it's] as if they're re-enacting a rap video or something. As if we're there to be their video ho..."

Many students, at least the ones that speak from the conservative Chronicle's pulpit, don't seem to grasp what the fuss is about. A screed by Duke junior Stephen Miller is typical: "...we are Durham's main attraction. Every time we set foot off-campus, we're actually leaving the best thing the city has to offer- and in turn, entering some of the most violent neighborhoods in the state. Duke is Durham's lifeblood, plain and simple. So if we want to stay on campus or to limit our interaction with Durham...then we have nothing to apologize for. If anything, the insistence on interacting with Durham locals is condescending to the town residents. Durham isn't a petting zoo. The residents won't get lonely or irritable if we don't play with them." Some have used the term "lynch mob" to describe the reaction from the Durham community to the alleged rape, a response that has included vigils, noisy early morning protests, and sit-ins on campus by outraged and offended students of both Duke and NCCU. These hardly resemble the actual lynch mobs that lurked in the Carolina landscape not so long ago.

Clearly a little historical perspective is in order. Durham was a hub of civil rights activism in the South, led by poor blacks in the city as well as students at North Carolina College (renamed North Carolina Central University in 1969). When the sit-ins of 1960 were sparked in nearby Greensboro, Durham was one of the first cities in the country to join the movement. Civil rights leaders like Howard Fuller and Ann Atwater figure prominently in the city's history.
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Duke did not admit its first black student until 1961, two years after the first desegregated school in Durham and seven years after Brown v. Board of Education. In 1967 the Afro-American Society at Duke occupied the Allen Administration Building after negotiations with the school administration to improve the climate for blacks on campus led nowhere. Their statement explained: "We seized the building because we have been negotiating with Duke administration and faculty concerning different issues that affect black students for 2 1/2 years and we have no meaningful results. We have exhausted the so-called 'proper' channels." Progressive white students played a positive role, holding off the police in defense of the black students inside. The Allen Building occupation led directly to the founding of Malcolm X Liberation University, which sought to provide, in the words of its founders, "a real alternative for black people seeking liberation from the misconception of an institutionalized racist education." Professors were recruited largely from NCCU, as well as from the non-academic activist milieu in town. In an ultimate rejection of Duke's aloof stance toward the city, they proclaimed "The accreditation for the university will be granted by the Black community."

The student press seemed a bit more swept up back then. Reading old issues of the Chronicle feels more like finding a yellowed copy of Ramparts than the servile stuff served up campus papers these days. The central focus of the paper seemed to be Black Power, the anti- war movement, "vanguard student action," and legalizing marijuana. An editorial on the '69 Allen Building occupation read: "The police were nothing more than robots; they performed an inhuman act at the bidding of the administration. The administration took this action against students who are trying to create a more human place for themselves amidst the great machinery of this university...The administration failed Duke's black students, and these students then took a justified action to correct this failure and handled themselves with dignity."

The campus press may have changed but the fights of the sixties are hardly over. Activists on both campuses that were separate just a few weeks ago have begun to unite against the town's class divide and racist bigotry. African-American students at Duke occupied the Allen building again two weeks ago. A large and inspiring vigil was held at the NCCU campus last week, and activists have continued to put pressure on. The solidarity built between activists on both campuses and in the city is breaking down the walls meant to keep them apart. The Lacrosse legal team has called on the woman to drop all charges "so the community can heal". Durham will only heal if its proud tradition can be recalled in the name of justice.

[Kevin Prosen is a free-lance writer living in Durham, North Carolina. He can be reached at kprosen@gmail.com. Dave Zirin is the author of "'What's My name Fool?'": Sports and Resistance in the united States. He is speaking at the conference Socialism 2006, June 22-25, in New York City, with Etan Thomas and Toni Smith. See www.socialismconference.org. Contact him at dave@edgeofsports.com]

 

Kevin Prosen is a free-lance writer living in Durham, North Carolina. He can be reached at kprosen@gmail.com .

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Privilege Meets Protest at Duke University

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