Linda Martín Alcoff: On Prejudging the Duke Lacrosse Team Scandal

11 08 2007

Linda Martín Alcoff
Director of Women’s Studies

The following was written for the inaugural event for the Institute for the Study of the Judiciary, Politics and the Media at Syracuse University, September 2006.

The Duke Lacrosse team scandal continues to raise heated debates, but hidden within much of the political and legal commentary are some important epistemological issues that need to be brought forward. I want to address those here.

First, we should separate out the two distinct realms of discourse that are operative in this scandal: the formal legal one, from the informal public one. Each realm has different standards of judgment, and plays a different role. The formal, legal realm is organized to determine the legal guilt of innocence of the individuals accused, while it should be clear that the public realm–that diffuse and loose amalgam of both formal and informal communications–cannot determine individual legal guilt or innocence. First, because it is not privy to all the facts (secrets can still be kept, even in these days of hyper-surveillance), and second, because the public realm of discourse is subject to the influence of various media which is in the business of selling stories. Almost everyone today understands that media reports of all sorts are edited, even when they are upholding the most scrupulous of journalistic standards.

We should take the public realm of discourse not as a court of law, then, but as a cultural site, and in analyzing it we should look not only at what is said but who is saying it, who is being given credibility, who is not, and what are the narratives on offer for making sense of the facts. Narratives are like theories, generally with some historical content, which are used to make sense of new events and to bring order to complicated facts. It is neither possible nor desirable for us to completely dispense with the use of narratives in judging new events: when synagogues are defaced, we interpret this understandably and rightly in the context of the history of anti-semitism, when a black man is dragged behind a truck until he is dead, this event is connected to a history of lynching and antiblack racism. When George Bush speaks before the U.N. on the topic of freedom, his speech is interpreted through the recent history of US military initiatives. Such historical narratives do not tell us everything we need to know about the new case or new claim, but they tell us some of what we need to know to understand the new event.

However, there are clearly better and worse narratives, even true and false narratives. For example, the narrative of black male sexual aggression against white women was a false narrative. That narrative played a role in the public’s willingness to condemn the Scottsboro Boys in 1930’s Alabama, a case that columnist Nicholas Kristof likens to the Duke scandal, but in the Scottboro case the narrative was actually historically inaccurate. It was simply a method used to maintain Jim Crow segregation and to terrorize African Americans from asserting their legal rights.

There are three main narratives being invoked in the Duke case, two false and one true, in my view. One of the false narratives is relatively old, and the other two narratives–one false and one true–are quite recent. Perhaps the most lasting significance of this case will be its effects on these narratives, and thus what I find most interesting about the public realm of discourse over Duke is to see how these narratives are being fought over, and by whom.

One narrative is that sex workers lie. Sex workers are generally not given epistemic credibility, by the courts, the police, or the public. They are seen as morally debased, or as strategic opportunists who have had to lie so much to make a living that they have forgotten how to be honest, or as human refuse too ignorant to have a conscience. Today, more people now know such claims to be distortions at best. More people now know–perhaps because of the exposes on human trafficking, perhaps because of sex worker organizations themselves that have articulated their political rights, perhaps because of feminism–that sex workers are a variegated group of people, sometimes quite well educated, and sometimes aware of their choices and risks. It is a fairly new event that a sex worker would be given credibility by feminists, by women’s fashion magazines, by mainstream African American media, even by some of the general public media. So the initial credibility given this woman complainant was interesting to me in this regard. Now I fear that the collapse of the legal case will be used to re-consolidate the older narrative that epistemically discredits all sex workers once again. But initially, the credibility that was being given an African American, working-class sex worker was evidence of a historic shifting away from previous practices in the public domain.

The second narrative under contestation concerns the history of privileged white men at elite universities who are involved in collective high status activities like sports and fraternities. This narrative–much newer, much less widely accepted–is that such groups sometimes abuse their status and power to break laws, both small ones and more serious ones. Is this narrative relevant here? The Duke Lacrosse team was organized very much like a fraternity, with most of the team living together and apart from the rest of the campus. The facts that are not in dispute here are that the team members hired sex workers for group entertainment, that they asked for racially specific types of sex workers (not black, as it turns out), that some of them referred during the evening to the sex workers as niggers and bitches, that one shouted out to a sex worker (as heard by a neighbor) “Hey bitch, thank your grandpa for your nice cotton shirt,” that one said to a sex worker that he was going to shove a broomstick up her, and that another one sent around a sick email professing his intention to rape, kill, and skin the sex workers. Those are the facts that are not in dispute. Also not in dispute is the fact that the Duke Lacrosse team has violated laws systematically over at least the past 5 years, becoming notorious among the administration for boorish behavior, such as public urination and hitting golf balls at buildings.

An almost uniform set of white columnists in the mainstream media have been arguing vociferously that the narrative about privileged white guys abusing their status is wrong, irrelevant, a “rush to judgment” (David Brooks), an unfair stereotype (Nicholas Kristof), a social prejudice. I would argue otherwise; it is both a true narrative and a relevant narrative to this case, even though it obviously does not establish the Lacrosse players guilt in regard to rape. Clearly, the list of actions given above coheres with the narrative of sports team members given license by their institutions to harass and abuse people, especially racially and sexually. We need more empirical studies of team sexual behavior in elite schools, but there is already a body of work that confirms that the tendency exists.

The third narrative involved here is the narrative about the so-called victim culture, in which people (especially white women and people of color) desire to be victims, to “wallow” in victimhood, and so on. Some have argued in this case that the commentators from the African American community who are condemning the Lacrosse players are driven by a strong self-identification as victims, or the desire to perpetuate their status in the public mind as victims. This narrative, I suggest, is quite false, and obviously self-serving to those who would rather not have their boat rocked by groups demanding social change. African Americans, in my experience, do not like being called “nigger-bitches.” Women do not want to be raped or threatened with rape by broomsticks. No one in their right mind really wants either to be a victim, or to be reminded of their victimization. In our highly individualistic, competitive society, to be a victim is actually to be vilified as weak, as not strong enough to have avoided the victimization, as not hardy enough to swallow one’s victimization in silence. Moreover, it is quite humiliating to be known publicly as having been victimized racially, or sexually. There are a lot of disincentives against reporting one’s victimization, as evidenced by the 80% (according to the FBI) of rape victims who never report.

(There are no doubt more narratives than those I am listing, but I have to keep this short.)

The point of this argument, then, is that narratives are not irrelevant to the process of trying to make sense of new events. No matter how this legal case turns out, those who have raised these and other narratives, contesting some and supporting others, have engaged in good epistemic practices.

However, there are two things that all of us who are engaged in the public realm of discourse need to do in order to improve the epistemic practices in regard to narratives: (1) understand more clearly the limits of narrative in determining, for example, the legal guilt of innocence of a particular defendant; and (2) instead of condemning all narratives wholesale we need to distinguish between better and worse, true and false narratives, criticizing those that still hold sway despite their inaccuracy. There’s knowledge, and then there’s myth, and in the public discussion over the Duke case, there has been plenty of both.

Mike Nifong and the North Carolina 5: Double Standards of North Carolina “Justice”

10 07 2007

Mike Nifong and the North Carolina 5

Double Standards of North Carolina “Justice”


Apparently, there’s a line in North Carolina that even prosecutors are forbidden to cross–and Mike Nifong found it.

Mike Nifong was the district attorney in Durham, N.C., who was subjected to public hearings, disbarred, forced to resign and may now face criminal charges for his role in the Duke lacrosse rape case.

Nifong’s public repudiation had nothing to do with concern for due process, the rights of the accused or constitutional liberties–which are routinely flouted by a whole slew of characters in North Carolina (and everywhere else in the U.S.), from street cops to corportate lobbyists to good-old boy politicians.

Nifong crossed the line when he used prosecutorial practices routinely used against ordinary working people to target the powerful and privileged. More damning still, Nifong’s efforts (whatever his intentions) exposed the rot at the heart of the elite (and ostensibly liberal) Duke University.

Nifong is no hero. It’s clear that he botched the investigation into charges by an African American woman that she was raped by Duke lacrosse players at a team “party” in March 2006. Nifong failed to get toxicology reports, conduct a recorded interview with the victim, or even build a decent account of events of the night of the alleged rape.

But these failings haven’t stopped North Carolina prosecutors in the past–and the state bar’s decision to strip Nifong of his ability to practice law reeks of hypocrisy.

* * *THERE ARE five obvious reasons why the North Carolina State Bar’s decision to disbar Nifong stinks. They are Samuel Poole, Christopher Spicer, Timothy Hennis, Alfred Rivera and Alan Gell. All five men were sentenced to die in North Carolina’s execution chamber. All five had their convictions overturned because of flimsy evidence, unreliable witnesses and the outright illegal actions of prosecutors. All five were released–but only after living through a combined 14 years of hell as they waited to die.

But to my knowledge, no prosecutor ever faced disbarment or criminal charges as a result of their misconduct in these cases. In the case of Alan Gell, the North Carolina State Bar conducted a two-day hearing that resulted in a tepid letter of reprimand. At the time, Dudley Humphrey, then-president of the NC Bar, said Gell was not a victim in the case, “The system was the victim.”

During Poole’s death penalty trial, prosecutors failed to provide any substantial evidence of his involvement in the crime. Spicer’s case was based on snitch testimony that involved a secret deal prosecutors never disclosed to the defense (when he was finally retried, the jury took 15 minutes to acquit him).

When the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned Hennis’ conviction, it called the evidence against him “extremely tentative.” Rivera was released because jurors were prevented from hearing evidence of his frame-up. In Gell’s case, prosecutors illegally withheld evidence that would have cleared Gell, including an audio tape of one of the state’s main witnesses saying she made up her story about the murder.

The North Carolina State Bar barely recognized these five travesties of justice. In fact, the state’s legal establishment has been nearly completely silent on issues related to the death penalty–including evidence of racist sentencing patterns, prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate defense for the poor. It has opted out of efforts to halt the state’s death penalty, instead choosing to support meek reform measures.

By contrast, Nifong did possess significant evidence to pursue the rape case. There was a traumatized victim, the testimony of an examining nurse who said a rape had taken place, physical evidence of assault and disgusting e-mails that circulated among the Duke students–like one that read, “I’ve decided to have some strippers over and all are welcome. I plan on killing the bitches as the [sic] walk in and proceed to cut their skin off while cumming in my duke spandex.”

As the mainstream media accounts increasingly sided with the student “victims” accused of rape, these undisputed facts were forgotten.

Nevertheless, the lack of a toxicology report made it impossible to prove whether the victim was drugged at the “party” (which, besides the obvious trauma, would explain her contradictory and confused statements), and the lack of DNA evidence may simply have indicated the assailants used condoms.

There was no “exculpatory” evidence proving the innocence of the suspects. Instead, the case dissolved mostly because there was no “smoking gun.”

This is how the justice system is supposed to work. If prosecutors fail to build a decent case, then suspects should walk.

There may be some who believe that there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of sexism and racism being played out in the Tar Heel state–that at least a prosecutor was publicly made to account for overstepping the boundaries.

It was, after all, quite a thing to watch law enforcement officials from across the state testifying in solemn tones about the sacred duties of prosecutors to defend justice, and not simply seek convictions.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath. When North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper recently suggested legislation that would allow the state Supreme Court to remove prosecutors from cases where it saw injustices (the same court charged with administering the state’s capital punishment system), that was too much for House Speaker Joe Hackney, who quickly voiced opposition to such measures.

Georgetown Law Professor David Cole observed in his book, No Equal Justice, that there is a zero-sum game involving the legal rights of defendants in the U.S. The impressive array of formal rights guaranteed to defendants under the Constitution appears to be prefaced by the assumption that those rights are only afforded to the well-heeled and well-connected.

Death row prisoners like Alan Gell have no reason to think they will ever be provided the same standard of justice as the three Duke lacrosse players.

The campaign against Nifong, the elevation of the Duke defendants as hapless victims and the vilification of the alleged rape victim have nothing to do with justice. The state bar hearings will reassure the unbridled arrogance of the wealthy and self-absorbed frat scene in the area.

As an antiwar activist going to school near Duke during the first Gulf War, I recall that it seemed like there was a connection between the Chapel Hill frat boys who pelted peace activists with ice-cold water balloons during winter vigils and the murder of the owner and manager of the left-wing Chapel Hill bookstore, Internationalist Books (found shot, nothing stolen, no suspect arrested). The frat boys’ “fun” experience attacking activists may have been the casual expression of a deeper culture of violence.

The truth of what happened the night of the Duke lacrosse team’s “fun” could remain buried forever, but as Mike Nifong recently said, “I still believe something happened in that bathroom that night.”

Nifong’s attackers have cloaked themselves in the rights of defendants and principles of justice–but it’s clear that when it comes to who they want these principles to apply to, they mean “just us.”

Mike Stark is a national board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a regular contributor to the New Abolitionist, the newsletter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, and to the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at .

B.E.T. News Article About the Duke Case

21 06 2007

 see full article here

By Ed Wiley III, News Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. (Posted June 21, 2007) – A little over a year after Durham (N.C.) District Attorney Mike Nifong went after three White Duke University lacrosse players accused of gang-raping a Black student at an off-campus party, he’s been fired, had his 30-year-old law license stripped, and has become the poster child for shady dealings in the U.S. justice system. He could still face civil suits and even criminal prosecution.

The speed at which “justice” kicked into high gear for the three White men accused of committing crimes against a Black woman is dazzling. But for many African Americans, including lawyers who have represented Black men falsely accused of rape only to see their prosecutors get off without so much as a rap on the knuckles, the entire Duke case is a study in racism and classism.

Dr. Manning Marable, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York, said that moments after the state bar announced its decision to prosecute Nifong, he and several associates, including a judge, two lawyers and an anthropologist, struggled to recall a similar precedent.

“None of us could come up with a single case in U.S. history where a district attorney lost his or her license or was removed from public office because of prosecutorial misconduct involving a Black defendant,” said Marable, who runs the Center for Contemporary Black History. “I’m not speaking to the merits of this case because I do think the prosecutor made egregious errors of judgment in pursuing it, but this is highly unusual.”

Even the executive director of the North Carolina State Bar, acknowledged to that during his 27 years with the association he could not recall another case of a state, county or city district attorney being disbarred.

“We do get calls of misconduct periodically …, and in those instances we do investigate,” Thomas Lunsford said. “But, no, I don’t recall,” instances of others being disbarred, although some prosecutors have been “disciplined” in the past.

In the most recent act of humiliation against the defrocked prosecutor, on Tuesday the Durham County Sheriff snatched his badge and keys, and the North Carolina Legislature unanimously passed a bill granting Gov. Mike Easley the power to remove him from office.

As for the young men wronged by the prosecutor, university President Richard H. Brodhead apologized profusely for the “heavy toll” that the ordeal has exacted on the three players, Reade Seligmann, Dave Evans and Collin Finnerty, and vowed “to work to protect others from similar injustices in the criminal justice system in the future.” Even more significantly, this week the university announced that it had reached a settlement (for an undisclosed amount of money) with the trio, a move designed to head off future lawsuits and to help make things right with the accused.

“Obvious Racial Component”

Contrast that, then, to what happened to dozens of Black men falsely accused of rape, including one who was just minutes from being put to death before a judge intervened.

A review of just the cases handled by the nonprofit Innocence Project shows that since 2006, there have been more than a dozen African-American men released or pardoned from prison after serving lengthy sentences for rapes and/or murders they never committed. Those innocent Black men had spent an average of almost 18 years behind bars and would still be there if not for the dogged labor of a group working independently of the government justice system. Most were victims of overzealous prosecutors, some with political aspirations, others hungry to nail a crime on any Black man who would satisfy the bloodlust of an angry, afraid and often racist community.

Of those cases reviewed by, only two had received compensation by the state. They are James Tillman, a 26-year-old homeless Connecticut man, who served 18 years of a 45-year sentence for rape, kidnapping and robbery, and Arthur Mumphrey, a 24-year-old man who served 18 years of a 35-year sentence after being falsely convicted for repeatedly raping a 13-year-old girl.

Lives at StakeThe issue of prosecutorial misconduct is one that has been on the radar screen of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) for some time. Christina Swarns, who runs LDF’s criminal justice project, said that the issue of misconduct comes up frequently.

She cited the case of Delma Banks, a Black Texas death row inmate whose appeals were denied one after another, even though the conviction and death sentence violated three U.S. Supreme Court rulings. In the Banks case, prosecutors struck all Black prospective jurors from the jury pool; withheld critical evidence that supported the defense; and looked the other way while their paid witnesses lied on the stand. On Dec. 12, 2003, with only 10 minutes to spare, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to halt Banks’ execution.

“We see prosecutorial misconduct in a lot of cases, particularly Death penalty cases,” Swarns said. “Was money and race part of the calculus that led to the D.A. in North Carolina being disbarred immediately? Yes. Are there African-American and poor men in prisons on death rows all over America who suffered trials with far more egregious acts of misconduct than we saw in the Duke case, absolutely. Most of them have no luxury of high-powered defense teams like the Duke young men had. This is an age-old story.”

The Duke outcome “reflects how deep racism is in the bosoms of so many White people who would not think of raising a finger when prosecutorial misconduct led to years of imprisonment and even death for Black men and women,” says Derrick Bell, visiting professor of law at New York University and author of such books as “And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice” and “Race, Racism and American Law.”

“The patterns may be somewhat more subtle than at an earlier time when there would not have been even an inquiry when a Black woman charged White men with rape. Now, when the charges are taken seriously and then disproved, the public comes down hard on the prosecutor. The worse part of all of this is that Black people (or most of us) see the obvious racial component in all of this, while most Whites neither see nor want to see. The inability to see the obvious racial aspects in so many issues – from slavery to segregation to affirmative action – could eventually bring this country down.”

Black Star News Article on the Duke Case

21 06 2007

Duke Case: Some Loose Ends

By Andre Stephens

June 20th, 2007

Op-Ed: The Duke Case

The Duke Rape case and our legal system’s speedy reaction to the way it was prosecuted is another example of how justice in America is different for white and Black folks, in perception and reality.

On June 15, 2007, Nifong was disbarred by unanimous decision of the bar’s disciplinary panel. Among the charges Nifong was found guilty of were fraud, dishonesty, deceit and misrepresentation. Even Duke University settled out of court with the three former players for an undisclosed amount.

The three former players are now widely portrayed by the mainstream media as victims. They were victimized by a public rush to judgment, Duke University and by Nifong’s rush to convict them. They have done television news magazine shows with sympathetic interviewers asking how they survived such an ordeal. How could this have happened to these three innocent young men that represent the best of this country’s youth?

The former players may have been the victims of an overzealous prosecutor, but are they totally innocent victims? No mention is ever made that these same innocent young men used an Escort Service to hire two women to strip and who knows what else. The team house had a reputation for rowdiness and unruly behavior. Neighbors reported students urinating out of the house windows. There were also reports of racial epithets being hurled at Black students that passed by.

Who can forget the e-mail that was recovered from one of the player’s computer in which they described a sick homicidal fantasy involving the dismemberment of one of the strippers. This also wasn’t the first time that members of the Duke Lacrosse team had run-ins with the law.

At the time of the rape investigation, 15 of the 47 players on the team had been cited by police for public and underage drinking. One of the defendants in the rape case had been arrested in Washington, DC with two other friends for beating a man in a bar, while taunting him with “gay” slurs.

I have a hard time with the portrayal of the three accused players as solely innocent victims with no accountability or responsibility for the situation in which they placed themselves. The last time I checked soliciting women for sex acts, underage drinking and lewdness were causes for being arrested, let alone expulsion from school. The player’s own misguided actions created the situation. To date, I have not heard any of the players accept responsibility for their own actions.

As I see the outrage of white America over the way the Duke players were treated, I tried to bring to mind a case involving a Black defendant where the legal system worked to correct itself in the same way as it did for the Duke players.

I tried to recall a situation in the last 20 years, where a perceived travesty committed against a person of color caused outrage within white America. Perhaps, that accounts for the difference between the way white and Black people view these situations.

The same legal system that worked the way it was designed to work for the Duke players, has consistently failed Black defendants. Furthermore, even when clear cut cases of injustice involving Blacks gains national attention, those instances are often dismissed as individual aberrations, with no connection to a broader pattern.

A quick review of some of the more famous legal cases where race was involved highlights how differently Black and whites view the legal system.

Some Black’s response to O.J. Simpson’s acquittal of the murder of his wife, Nicole Simpson, was not a reflection of whether they felt he was guilty or innocent. It was a reaction to seeing how dismayed whites were when the legal system worked for a Black man in the same way that it had worked for whites all too many times. The intelligence of the mostly Black jury was questioned by the media and became a national punch line on late night television.

When Rodney King was beaten unmercifully by L.A. police officers, Black folks figured the case for police brutality was pretty obvious. Everything you needed to know was right there on video. Instead many white people accepted the LAPD’s defense that King was a threat and the Simi Valley jury’s acquittal of the officers. The juror’s intelligence was never questioned the way the jurors in the O.J. trial was.

Susan Smith, a white woman from South Carolina, drowned her children in the family car and told police that she was carjacked by a Black man. A similar situation happened in Boston when Charles Stuart murdered his family and blamed an unidentified Black perpetrator. Willie Bennet, a Black man was arrested for the crime in the Stuart case, as the enraged citizenry of Boston called for reinstatement of the death penalty. These were both sensational cases that stayed in the news for weeks. However, the public outrage was focused on the murderers. Whites never joined the call for racial justice once it was discovered that both murderers relied on their whiteness and America’s predisposition to believe in Blacks as criminals to get away with the most heinous of acts.

Of course these are just a few examples. There are many other examples and many more that never make it to the public consciousness. However, it is amid this backdrop that whites started using the phrase, “playing the race card” to refer to Blacks using race to circumvent responsibility and play on white guilt. I can’t think of a more inaccurate and misleading phrase in the English language, when the history of Black peoples in America is considered.

We now have Genarlow Wilson. Genarlow is not unlike the Duke lacrosse players. He was a star football player and with a 3.2 GPA. Genarlow clearly represented the best of this country’s youth.

Genarlow was 17 when he was arrested for statutory rape of a 15 year old girl. Even though the act was performed willingly, the law in most states says that a 15 year old does not yet have the mental capacity to consent to sexual acts. Genarlow was preparing to take the SAT the day he was arrested.

The sex took place at a party in a hotel where there was under aged drinking and willing participation in sexual acts. Someone at the party decided to film the event. The film is what led to Genarlow’s eventual arrest. After viewing the film, it was obvious to the jury that the 15 year old participated willfully in the act. However, Georgia state law had mandatory sentencing guidelines for statutory rape which forced the jury, against their stated better judgment, to find Genarlow guilty.

Genarlow was given a 10 year sentence for child molestation and would have to register as a sex offender upon release. He’s been in prison for over two years.

In interviews, Genarlow has expressed regret and taken responsibility for his actions. He admits that he was wrong to participate in sexual activity with the young lady. The media is just starting to give Genarlow’s case some attention. The Georgia Assembly has since passed laws that if they were in effect three years ago, Genarlow would not be imprisoned.

I have to ask, where is the public outcry and mass media attention now? If a 10 year jail sentence for sex between a 15 and 17 year old, both of whom were participants, is not an injustice, then what is?

Cheers can’t drown out painful truths – Public brawl over rape allegations reminds us of the price women sometimes must pay for being heard

20 06 2007

The Chicago Tribune: THE DUKE LACROSSE CASEBy Anne K. Ream

June 17, 2007

Supporters of the Duke University lacrosse team are in a celebratory mood. The team excelled in last month’s NCAA tournament. And just last week, the prosecutor who filed rape charges against three of the team’s players was himself put on trial, accused of ethics violations in pursuing a case fraught with problems.

The young men who narrowly lost to rival Johns Hopkins in the NCAA championship game are indeed gifted and resilient athletes. But praising the players as “outstanding” and “upstanding” young men, as the Duke Lacrosse Booster Club did in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, is a reminder of just how low the bar has fallen when it comes to acceptable male behavior. Legal vindication is not moral vindication, no matter how hard a PR campaign works to make it so.

We may never know everything that occurred on the night of March 13, 2006, when the Duke lacrosse players threw a team party at an off-campus house. But what we do know is troubling enough.

Photos taken at the party show two young women, hired to perform by the players, dancing at the center of a group of largely drunken and leering men. The North Carolina attorney general’s report details how one of the lacrosse players held up a broomstick during the night’s events, suggesting that the women use it as a “sex toy.” Another player sent a chilling group e-mail just hours after the party, musing about bringing in more “strippers” and cutting off their skin while ejaculating. Witnesses reported hearing racial slurs lobbed by partygoers.

To be fair, individual acts do not implicate the entire lacrosse team. Misogyny is not illegal. And none of these ugly events constitutes a criminal act. But they stand as a testimony all their own, a window into a world where “good” men engage in troubling — and sometimes troubled — behavior.

The statement that “boys will be boys” has become an all-purpose justification for male behavior that is boorish, bad and at times even brutal. The degradation of women has been normalized for so long that it seems we have ceased to see what is right before our eyes.

Yet the words and images that came from the residence of the captains of the Duke lacrosse team demand to be addressed, as does the prosecutor’s possibly criminal mishandling of the case. They speak volumes about the climate in the players’ house. So what does our silence in the face of these truths say about us?

We talk endlessly, exhaustingly, about “moral values.” But we talk little of valuing women, particularly when they are young, poor and black, as were the women hired by the Duke lacrosse players.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at the news conference two months ago when North Carolina Atty. Gen. Roy Cooper dismissed all charges against the players, taking the opportunity to muse about the mental stability of the young woman at the heart of the case. Later that week, when the mother of one of the lacrosse players appeared on “Good Morning America” and insinuated that the accuser ought to lose her children, she left little doubt about who was being tried in the court of public opinion.

Every public rape case exists in two spaces: In the practical, “law and order” world, where it works its way through an imperfect system; and in the public imagination, where it exists symbolically, a Rorschach test of our values and beliefs. It is not only the specifics, but also the symbolism, of the Duke case that remain troubling. Both serve to remind those who come forward with rape charges that they may pay a steep and very public price for the chance to be heard.

Millions of rape victims, most of whom never report the crime — much less see legal justice — must have watched silently as this case unfolded, thinking about how they might have fared under such scrutiny. That the accuser gave conflicting statements to the police is not unusual. A victim’s statements, particularly in the wake of a traumatic attack, can be confused and inconsistent. Memory is resolutely imperfect over time and under the duress of repeated questioning.

Our cultural response to rape leaves its victims in the cruelest of double binds: They must choose between coming forward, which carries the risk of being blamed, and remaining silent, which carries the risk of isolation. It is a silence that damages more than the victim. It strikes a blow to our public safety as well, because unreported sexual violence allows perpetrators to violate again.

The myth of the “false report” of rape must be replaced by this truth: It is underreporting, not false reporting, that poses the greatest risk to our families and our communities. It is silence that is the enemy of change.


Anne K. Ream is a Chicago-based writer and founder of The Voices and Faces Project,, a national documentary initiative. Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

A Survivor’s Response

30 05 2007

This powerful post comes from the blog Taking Steps. If you follow the link, you will also find a really interesting conversation going on in the comments section. Thank you to little light (blogger) and to Pigeon (guest poster)!

on the record

This is another guest post by Pigeon, in response to the huge mess going around right now in relation to the accouncement regarding the Duke lacrosse rape case. I didn’t feel qualified to offer an opinion myself, certainly not one that’s not already been offered by folk who know better than I do, but this is important to read. If this doesn’t bring it home for you and hurt, I’m not sure you’re a person.
Anyway. I should leave it at that.
Except this, considering how many trolls are out running around right now: if you so much as consider being an asshole about this, I will moderate you so hard your ancestors will feel it, capisce?

i tried to write about this post a few days ago, a few days after the duke verdict came out.
i tried, and erased and rewrote and erased, and gave up.
i want this to come out right. i want this to be so many things, i don’t much think it will be. but i think i need to write this anyway.i didn’t expect the duke case to shake me so much. i feel like i hear about, talk about, read about, think about rape every day. i like to think i’ve built up some callous at this point, a tough, thick covering to take the edge off.the whole thing caught me off guard. i didn’t follow the case very closely, mostly just reading feminist analyses on various blogs, snippets on npr. closely enough though, to know that the whole thing was deeply fucked up, that something happened to that woman that night, whether or not it fit the official charges or was perpetrated by the three accused.and now they’ve been proclaimed not guilty, and that’s fine. i don’t know if they did it, but let’s presume innocence. glad they got their names cleared.

except now you hear the news, following “three boys innocent” with “she was never raped” and liar and whore. and no one seems to notice that the accused men’s innocence has nothing to do with whether or not she was raped, only that they didn’t do it. she called 911 for a reason, she went to the hospital afterwards, the examination supported her claims of sexual assault. we have no reason to think those results were wrong, no new information to contest it. perhaps she picked the wrong guys from the line-up, but that has little to do with what actually happened to her.
(go to feministe for more intelligent, coherent and thorough thoughts on this. read the comments at your own risk. i wish i hadn’t.)

but no one seems to remember that. instead it’s just liar, liar, liar. as if survivors aren’t called liars often enough as it is. this case just adds fuel to the fire of news media crying out, “she says she was raped, but what if she’s lying!” perpetuating the idea that women routinely lie about sexual assault to deflect attention from their own misdoings.

i don’t know a lot of statistics, and am never quite sure when to trust them, but i do know a lot of women, and i trust them a whole lot. of all the women i know, more than not have been raped, sexually assaulted or sexually abused at some point in their lives. of these women, more than not never reported. and of the few who did, more than not suffered pretty intense negative consequences because of it.

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Editorial: Defending the ‘good girls’

21 05 2007


Posted on Fri, May. 04, 2007

Guest columnist

There’s probably been more than enough said about both Don Imus and the Duke rape case. I have debated whether I should add my voice to the throng. But then I think about this statement and why it bothers me so much:

“Why do people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson always play the race card? We will never get over our divisions unless people learn to let things go.”

What does this even mean? Does it mean that racism will end if we let racists be racist in peace? We can live in a less racially divisive society if only I can learn not to bother you with the circumstances and consequences of my oppression? Your need to live free of emotional and social discomfort is more important than my right to be heard?

And what exactly am I getting out of this? The right to be called a “nappy-headed ho” on national radio? Thanks but no thanks.

If this was the only thing bothering me about the whole matter, I might be able to let it go. I can’t though. Here’s why:

In the rush to defend the Rutgers women’s basketball team, it seems that they have earned our support precisely because they are not actually “nappyheaded hos.” They are not the young woman in the Duke case. That nameless young woman — a single mother, a college dropout, a former exotic dancer, as every article reminds us — didn’t deserve our defense. We could be outraged on her behalf. We could rail against the white male privilege run amok. But defend her? No.

Her very existence undermines what so many black women try so hard to prove every day: We are not welfare mothers. We are not video vixens. We are not “nappy-headed hos.” But being the sexual entertainment at a party full of white men doesn’t really demonstrate that, does it? So there will be no defense of her, no meetings with her, no rallying around her now that North Carolina has decided she’s a liar.

But the Rutgers players? These young women are on the Condoleezza Path of Success. They have struggled, worked hard, followed the rules, played the game. and it’s paying off. They have been trotted out on TV, not a nappy head among them, looking every bit the bright, high-achieving women they are. And the implication, at least to my eyes, is that they deserve our protection because they are good girls. What would have happened if they had been less than good?

Maybe this all bothers me because I was placed on the Condoleeza Path of Success early in life. I learned, even though no one ever said these words, that being smart and well-spoken and modest would protect me from many of the degradations that so many black women have to live with every day. And I succeeded. I live with a certain amount of privilege that many black women don’t have.

It’s amazing how people’s facial expressions and body language change when I introduce myself as Dr. Francis or mention that I’m a college professor. A whole set of assumptions about me get thrown out because of that PhD. But Dr. Francis isn’t exactly tattooed on my forehead, is it?

I walk around in my brown skin, appearing very much the nappy-headed ho to the Imuses of the world simply because of that skin. And it’s small comfort to think that, apparently, my only defense against that is trying really hard to be Condoleezza.

Dr. Francis is an assistant professor of English at the College of Charleston.

J: Duke Professors Recieving Racist, Threatening E-mails – one year later: still being justified by the “listening ad”

24 04 2007

Duke Profs Receive Racist E-Mail After Lacrosse Case

by: Scott Mason –

“Duke University police are investigating death threats against professors who questioned racial attitudes on campus a year ago, shortly after a black woman accused three white Duke lacrosse players of sexually assaulting her.

The so-called “Group of 88” professors endorsed an advertisement in The Duke Chronicle newspaper that quoted students who talked candidly about racism on campus. Some readers said the faculty members were convicting the lacrosse players before they had been tried…”

“The attacks have continued even as the case against the players has ended, said the professors, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of instigating more threats. They said they receive about a half dozen threatening e-mails a day from unidentified senders.

Read the rest of this entry »

Article from the News and Observer:

19 04 2007

Case’s end worries crisis counselors: Some say fewer assaults will be reported

by: Anne Blythe, News and Observer Staff Writer

Some Triangle rape crisis counselors said the Duke lacrosse case’s end could inhibit sexual assault reports, but the organization that runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline supports N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s decision to dismiss the charges…

…Locally, some experts predicted a chilling effect.”Any time you have a case that is heavily publicized and includes a lot of survivor stigmatization, it has an effect on reporting,” said Donna Bickford, director of the Carolina Women’s Center at UNC-Chapel Hill…

…That many news outlets, including The News & Observer, named the accuser could dissuade victims from coming forward, some said…

…Manju Rajendran, an organizer of a protest last spring at which people angered by the rape charge banged pots and pans at the house where the party occurred, said Friday that she still believes the accuser.

“I’m one of just a huge number of people, especially assault survivors, especially women, especially people of color, who have seen different versions of this story play out so many times,” Rajendran said.

“The way she has been personally attacked because of the fact that she spoke up sends a message to survivors that they need to stay silent if they want to stay safe. If you’ve already been violated, to get a message like that is scary.”

Aishah Simmons: But Some of Us Are Brave

15 04 2007

The following essay is from acclaimed filmmaker and activist Aishah Shahidah Simmons in support of the National Day of Truthtelling. Please read her powerful words, forward this email to everyone you know, and JOIN US IN DURHAM ON APRIL 28 AS WE TELL THE TRUTH AND BEGIN TO CREATE A WORLD WITHOUT SEXUAL VIOLENCE!!!

For more information, visit our website at and do the following things…

1) Register to let us know that you are coming

2) Get your organization to endorse the event

3) Contribute funds to help us reach our goals for the day. Your contribution is tax-deductible.

Thank you

Day of Truthtelling Organizing Committee

But Some of Us Are Brave—In Support of the April 28, 2007 National Day of Truthtelling in Durham, North Carolina
By Aishah Shahidah Simmons

While there are many folks who are rejoicing that Imus was fired, I fear that we may have won a battle but could have *temporarily* lost this relentless racist/sexist war against Black women in the United States. While most eyes were focused on the outcome of Imus’ fate, the accused members of the Duke Lacrosse team were exonerated. Very, very tragically, many of the same Black (overwhelmingly male) voices who were demanding the firing of Imus, haven’t said a peep about the recent dropping of charges against the accused members of the Duke Lacrosse team. Additionally, in the ongoing mainstream media discussions about Imus calling the predominantly Black women’s basketball team at Rutgers University “nappy headed-ho’s,” there hasn’t been any mainstream media correlation/analysis/commentary/discussion about the fact that:

1. Some of the (White) Duke Lacrosse team members called the two (Black) women “niggers” and “bitches”;
2. One of the (White) Duke Lacrosse members threatened to rape them with a broomstick;
3. Another (White) Duke Lacrosse team member spoke of hiring strippers in an e-mail sent the same night that threatened to kill “the bitches” and cut off their skin while he ejaculated in his “Duke-issued spandex;” and
4. Another (White) Duke Lacrosse team member shouted to the (Black woman) victim as she left the team’s big house, “Hey bitch, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt.”

Instead there were subtle and not-so subtle racist implications that hip-hop is the cause of Imus’ racist/sexist comments; and that the Black woman stripper/whore (not daughter, not mother, not college student, not sex worker) lied on/set up the innocent White Duke Lacrosse team members (who hired her and her colleague to perform for them).

So, in this very direct way the corporate owned media message to the American public is that Black people, especially Black women, are the perpetrators of violence against White men (and I would argue Black men too).

Based on the overwhelming deafening silence from mainstream Black (predominantly male) ‘leaders’ and organizations about the documented racist/sexist comments made by the White Duke Lacrosse team members, it’s clear to me that no one will speak for us– Black women–but ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rape survivor, a child sexual abuse survivor, a domestic violence survivor, a stripper, a prostitute, a lesbian, a bisexual woman, a heterosexual woman, a single mother (especially with several children from different fathers), on welfare, a high school drop out, college educated, working in corporate America, working at a minimum wage job with no health insurance, or working in the film/music/television entertainment industry. Yes, I placed what some people would view as very different/distinct categories of Black women in the same category because I firmly believe that if any of the aforementioned Black women are at the wrong place at the wrong time (which could be at any time), we, Black women, will be left to heal our very public wounds alone.

I was the young Black woman who in 1989, at 19 years old six weeks shy of my 20th birthday, said “Yes”, while on a study abroad program. I was the Black woman who broke the rules of the university where I attended by agreeing to sneak out, after hours, to meet the man who would become my rapist. I was the Black woman who after breaking the university enforced rules started to have second thoughts but was afraid to articulate them and was afraid to turn around because my friends were covering for me. I was the Black woman who paid for the hotel room where I was raped. I was the Black woman who said to my soon-to-become rapist, “I don’t want to do this. Please stop.” I didn’t “violently” fight back. I didn’t scream or yell to the top of my lungs” because I was afraid. I didn’t want to make a “scene.” I blamed myself for saying, “Yes” for breaking the rules for paying for the hotel room.

I am one of countless women, regardless of race/ethnicity/national origin, age, sexual orientation, class, religion who experientially learned that the (often unchallenged) punishment for women who use poor judgment with men is rape and other forms of sexual violence. And the reward for those same men who perpetrate the sexual violence that we (victim/survivors) experience is the opportunity to perpetrate again and in turn say “WOMEN LIE.”

“For all who ARE survivors of sexual violence. For all who choose to BELIEVE survivors of sexual violence. For all who KNOW WE CAN end rape culture.” come to Durham, North Carolina on Saturday, April 28, 2007. Join the numerous individuals and organizations from across the United States who will come to Durham, North Carolina on Saturday, April 28, 2007 to participate in “Creating A World Without Sexual Violence – A National Day of Truthtelling.”

This mobilizing event is organized by a coalition of organizations including North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Ubuntu, Men Against Rape Culture, SpiritHouse, Raleigh Fight Imperialism Stand Together, Southerners on New Ground, Independent Voices, Black Workers for Justice, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization/OSCL).

For more information on the National Day of Truthtelling, visit:

Aishah Shahidah Simmons is a Black feminist lesbian documentary filmmaker, writer, and activist based in Philadelphia. An incest and rape survivor, she spent eleven years, seven of which were full time to produce/write/direct NO! (The Rape Documentary), a feature length documentary which looks at the universal reality of rape and other forms of sexual violence through the first-person testimonies, activism, scholarship, cultural work, and spirituality of African-Americans.
Following is a non-inclusive list of books by Black feminists who address Hip-Hop and Feminism
(There are many more books than those that are listed):

Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip-Hop’s Hold On Young Black Women by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting

Prophets in the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip-Hop by Imani Perry

When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down by Joan Morgan

From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism by Patricia Hill Collins

Gender Talk: The Struggle For Women’s Equality in African American Communities by Johnnetta Betsch Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall