DURHAM, N.C. -- Most people know Duke University for its championship basketball teams, mostly white in an era of black domination of the sport. Duke's professoriate would prefer Duke to be known as the "Harvard of the South," a school as good as any in the Ivy League and with better weather. But now Duke is known for its lacrosse team.
The lacrosse scandal hovers over Duke and Durham as a cloud of gloom, threatening to darken the surrounding forest greens, with azaleas exploding in colorful profusion and wisteria adding a lavender blush to roads and paths. Three young white athletes have been accused by a black exotic dancer hired to perform at a team party of forcing her into a bathroom for a bout of rough sex. A test of DNA was negative; the district attorney says she identified one attacker from a photograph and the prosecution will proceed. The dancer, a single mother and a student at a predominantly black college nearby, asserts that several broken false fingernails left behind are testimony to her struggle.
The plot is thickening into the Gothic tale that makes the South so irresistible to novelists. Consider the setting: Duke, sometimes called "the Plantation," stands apart from blue collar Durham. The university is a successor to tiny Trinity College, which relocated from rural Randolph County in 1859 when it agreed to train preachers in return for support from the Methodist Church, and endowed in 1924 with a new name and money from the prosperous Duke tobacco family. Durham, on the other hand, recalls "Tobacco Road," Erskine Caldwell's gritty tale of hardscrabble life and hard times in the Southern mill towns. The median income in Durham would just about pay for a year at Duke.
Most of Duke's 6,400 undergraduates, 11 percent of whom are black and who pay $43,000 a year for tuition, room and board, come from out of state. Like most of the campuses of the elites, Duke is decidedly liberal. When David Horowitz lectured here last month to promote his "Academic Bill of Rights," he was jeered and heckled for rebuking the liberal hypocrisy of the campus, scolding tenured professors for allowing their politics to take precedence over scholarship. "Didn't your mother teach you manners?" he asked the students. Jeers turned to cheers. Good manners, even on an elite and liberal campus, still trump politics in the South.
Good manners will be needed to keep Duke and Durham civil as the courts sort out the lacrosse-team scandal. Lawyers for the athletes say they have time-stamped photographs that show the woman showed up with bruises and cuts visible on her body. The white district attorney, opposed for re-election next month by a black opponent, says the DNA evidence is not necessary to convict. The athletes could have used condoms. The newspapers have been full of psychological and sociological interpretations -- established facts are scarce -- and naturally compared to Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons," a tale of depravity on a college campus, and "The Bonfire of the Vanities," in which an aggressive prosecutor exploits racial tensions that arise out of phony charges.
Racism is by definition prejudice cast in black and white, and the first reaction of decent folks to cries of rape almost invariably gives the benefit of the doubt to the woman. An interracial aspect brings everything quickly to rage. Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl in New York who said she was sexually abused and smeared with racial epithets written in feces by six white men, initially outraged nearly everyone. Her story was eventually exposed as fakery. A white male freshman at the University of Pennsylvania was prosecuted under the university's racial harassment code for telling boisterous women of a black sorority raising Cain below his window in the middle of the night to "shut up, you water buffalo." It turned out that the man called on an image that had nothing to do with race.
Accusations of rape and racism are powerful indictments, and it's important to examine the evidence before we determine punishment. The more inflammatory the accusation, the greater the care. Duke was host last week to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, sponsored jointly with The New York Times, and the major prize voted on by the audience went to "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," a documentary about a black man convicted of raping and murdering a 19-year-old white woman. Darryl Hunt was tried before an all-white jury in 1984, convicted largely on the testimony of a onetime Ku Klux Klansman. Ten years later, lawyers armed with DNA evidence persuaded the courts to look anew, and Darryl Hunt was freed -- demonstrating that a rush to judgment is always a rush in the wrong direction.