Sympathy for the Gang of 88

Jon Sanders

1/21/2007 12:00:01 AM - Jon Sanders

Tonight, in Durham, 87 college professors and instructors are hurting. The outside world has misunderstood them. Goodness, they didn't mean to claim the lacrosse players were guilty of gang rape.

They just meant to say that all of you are guilty for making that racist gang rape possible. Even though it didn't happen. Because, you know, it's just like what's happening every day to students at Duke.

But first: please, America, re-read their "listening" statement . They never flat-out say that the lacrosse team members are guilty of gang rape. They make the requisite qualifications: "Regardless of the results of the police investigation," "If it turns out that these students are guilty," "the disaster didn't begin on March 13th and won't end with what the police say or the court decides." See?

Remember that while you consider their other statements of drop-jawed hysteria: "illuminated in this moment's extraordinary spotlight [is] what [students] live with every day"; "These students are shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman and to themselves"; "This is not a different experience for us here at Duke ... We go to class with racist classmates, we go to the gym with people who are racists"; "students know that the disaster didn't begin on March 13th."

No, they never said the lacrosse players were guilty of gang rape. They took the occasion of a horrific crime to vent their spleen at the student body and community at large, accusing untold numbers of students and community members of racism and sexual violence the level of which was creating a climate in which "every day" was just like gang rape and sexual battery for lots of students.

For some reason, that appalled many of those people, a reaction that shocked the professors. They've had those sentiments for years and no one's ever objected before! Of course, they don't normally take those sentiments outside the Gothic halls into what people in the university and out of it call "the real world."

Be that as it may, people were misconstruing their meaning, and they couldn't allow that to continue. Well, not beyond nine months. Two months if you start counting from when the Duke African and African American Studies pulled the "listening statement" off its web site mere hours after discovering people in "the real world" were linking to it and discussing it.

There being no Memory Hole in cyberspace, the professors eventually decided to address the controversy directly. In their new explanation, they say they "understand the ad instead as a call to action on important, longstanding issues on and around our campus, an attempt to channel the attention generated by the incident to addressing these."

Yes. That's exactly what they tried – to hijack what would have been the most shocking crime in Duke history bar none, pretend that it was normal, and use that perversion to justify endless, tedious harangues about how bad Duke, Durham and society at large has always been.

"Duke hasn't changed."

"We stand by the claim that issues of race and sexual violence on campus are real," the new statement concludes. Perplexingly, the full truth of this statement escapes the ones making it. Let's revisit some recent issues of race and sexual violence on Duke's campus.

In 1997 students were greeted with a lurid display: a mock lynching of a black doll. The doll was hanged from a tree bearing a sign that read "Duke hasn't changed." The site of the mock lynching was significant; it was the gathering place for members of the Black Student Alliance.

The incident roiled the campus. A "racial crime" had taken place, one that proved how fractured race relations were at Duke. And so it seemed -- until the perpetrators were found to be black student activists who wanted to foster that very impression.

At that point, the hoaxers were defended in much the same way the professors are defending themselves. An editorial in the Duke Chronicle stated, "The idea behind the act is being overlooked (as is usually the case). The University has not changed. Blacks are allowed to be enrolled here, but the idea is the equivalent of the transition from field slave to house slave."

In Spring 2002, a freshman had terrified the campus community two years prior by alleging that she had been "beaten and sexually assaulted after being sprayed in the eyes with a liquid as she exited a stall in a Randolph Dormitory bathroom." Having been "blinded," she could not identify her attacker; it could have been any man. Women wrote to the Chronicle of their fear of being "on campus". Duke even offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of the assailant before he attacked again.

In Fall 2004, there was another terrifying sexual assault. A woman said she had been attacked from behind while jogging near Duke Forest by a man who placed a cord around her neck. The campus was once again wracked by a "culture of fear" and "hysteria."

Then the truth came out. The victim in 2004 was the same victim in 2002, and as her tale of the forest assault was revealed to be a hoax, investigators realized that the infamous assault of ‘02 had been a hoax, too.

By 2004, it seemed that the Duke community had learned a valuable lesson. The Chronicle reported, "When students learned last week that one of the instigating events for the move was likely fabricated, they criticized anew the way the University handled the situation."

“We went from too little to too much,” one student told the paper. “One event should not have led to a bunch of reactions. It should have been an analysis of the whole situation."

Another student noticed, "Whenever one thing bad happens, the campus will sort of freak out. This just shows that that isn't always the best thing."

But the campus that had been subject to numerous hoaxed incidents of racial and sexual violence had yet to witness the level of "freaking out" it would reach in 2006. Sure, there have been numerous rapes in Durham before and since (there were 91 rapes reported in 2004, and the first half of 2006 there were 39 other rapes reported), but not one of them has received any attention from the freakers, the pot-bangers, the placard-waivers, the student-flunkers and statement-writers. Nor did the recent murder of a graduate student and academic stand-out from N.C. Central University (where the stripper attended). Those crimes didn't offer a "perfect storm" of racial, sexual and class-related issues; they presented no opportunity to hijack. So freaking out was reserved for what turned out to be the biggest hoax at Duke so far.

No, the lesson of past hoaxes hadn't been learned after all at one of the nation's most prestigious institutions of higher learning. It seems Duke hasn't changed.