Breathing while white

Posted: May 17, 2006 12:05 AM

Americans love to poll, test and otherwise assess themselves.

A news item barely hits the wires before a poll follows indicating Americans' reaction. Applying for a new job? Just fill out this short questionnaire to determine whether you're racist, sexist, homophobic, heterophobic, ageist, height-ist, or a fat-o-phobe.

In that spirit of sensitivity, I submit the following pop quiz to gauge your bias as a news consumer. After reading the following characteristics, please select the college group that most likely fits the description:

The group has a 100 percent college graduation rate. Sixty percent have a 3.0 grade point average or above. During the past four years, 80 percent have made a national honor roll. Members regularly volunteer at more than a dozen community agencies, building houses for the homeless and serving in soup kitchens, while raising more money than any other group for the Katrina Relief Fund.

Answer: (a) Tri-Delta sorority at the University of North Carolina; (b) women's rowing team at Clemson University; (c) synchronized swim team at Harvard University; (d) men's lacrosse team at Duke University.

OK, I know, you're smart. You're onto this trick. Obviously, it's (d), the infamous Duke men's lacrosse team, that rowdy drunken white-boy club that rapes black women forced to strip to put themselves through college and feed their fatherless children.

But chances are good that the lacrosse team didn't spring immediately to mind in the context of high marks and community service. Instead, conventional wisdom - thanks to media reports and Duke's own response to charges that three team members raped a woman - is that the entire team is a collection of privileged, alcohol-abusing knuckledraggers.

The description I presented comes from a statement prepared by one of the lacrosse player's parents for a university committee appointed to study the team in the wake of the alleged incident.

That parent, Dr. Thom A. Mayer, is himself a Duke alumnus, an emergency doc as well as one of the command physicians at the Pentagon Rescue Operation, Sept. 11, 2001. Mayer introduced himself by noting that he attended Duke on a scholarship, not as a child of privilege, and that his gratitude runs deep.

Nevertheless, he compared the university's treatment of the lacrosse team to the level of horror he experienced in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Mayer's son is not one of the three indicted on rape charges. Mayer's point, however, was that the entire team has been tarred with the same brush, despite a record of scholarship and citizenship that belies the spin familiar to anyone following the story.

Point by point, Mayer dissected the assumptions of racism, alcohol abuse and delinquency by providing facts and context.

Much has been made of the team's drinking exploits, for instance. While a university report shows that some lacrosse team players (mostly freshman and sophomores) rack up a disproportionate share (11 percent) of complaints compared to the larger student body, they're are not, as Mayer put it, "the stuff of the legend of thugs and hooligans that the press and prosecutor would have you believe." Of the 11 lacrosse player cases adjudicated by Duke's office of judicial affairs for the school year 2004/2005, for instance, five involved underage possession and four were violations of the community standard on alcohol. The other two were for "theft" for using another student's Duke card to buy food.

Most damning of the pretrial publicity that resulted in a hasty end to the lacrosse season and suspension of one of the players from school was an e-mail clearly intended as a joke, albeit a dumb one. The e-mail said that strippers would be hired, but there wouldn't be any sex. Instead they would be skinned while he pleasured himself.

Few would disagree that the e-mail was disgusting, but it was also - in context - a reference to the cult movie "American Psycho," in which a demented Wall Street banker kills people (men and women) after toying with them in dramatic scenarios that may be dreams. Although the film is not for everyone, apparently some Duke faculty consider it important enough to include it in at least three Duke courses. Students can check it out from the Duke library.

Without knowing what happened the night of the alleged rape, Mayer's point is nevertheless well taken. Too easily we convict alleged perps in the court of public opinion when they fit our templates of good/bad. Black strippers good (because they can't help it); white athletes bad (because they're white).

The story branded as having all the elements of a great tale - sex, race, class, privilege, as well as town-gown issues at an elite university in the South - has everything but the truth, which also includes this:

White males - descendant as they are of the imperialistic, colonizing, native-raping patriarchy - are the new culturally approved targets of the lynch mob.

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