In the aftermath of a social disaster

Raleigh News and Observer, January 5, 2007

In the aftermath of a social disaster

Cathy N. Davidson

DURHAM – Last April I added my name to an ad published in the Duke Chronicle. The ad said that we faculty were listening to the anguish of students who felt demeaned by racist and sexist remarks swirling around in the media and on the campus quad in the aftermath of what happened on March 13 in the lacrosse house.

The insults, at that time, were rampant. It was as if defending David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann necessitated reverting to pernicious stereotypes about African-Americans, especially poor black women. Many black students at Duke disappeared into humiliation and rage as the lacrosse players were being elevated to the status of martyrs, innocent victims of reverse racism.

As it turned out, 87 other faculty members were alarmed at this distressing side-effect of the lacrosse incident and signed the ad. I am positive I am not the only professor who was and continues to be adamant about the necessity for fair and impartial legal proceedings for David, Collin and Reade while also being dismayed by the glaring social disparities implicit in what we know happened on March 13.

A team of distinguished athletes at an elite and highly respected university hired two local women to strip at a house filled with men (including those underage) who had been drinking too much. That’s sleazy, to say the least. That those women were women of color underscores the appalling power dynamics of the situation.

As a professor at Duke, I felt shame when the media’s account of the behavior in the lacrosse house came to stand for all Duke students and the institution itself. So many students, faculty and administrators here work hard to live down our unflattering old segregation nickname, “the Plantation.” Yet after March 13, Duke again came to symbolize (seemingly for the entire world) the most lurid and sexualized form of race privilege.

The ad we signed explicitly was not addressed to the police investigation or the rape allegations. The ad focused on racial and gender attitudes all too evident in the weeks after March 13. It decried prejudice and inequality in the society at large. “It isn’t just Duke, it isn’t everybody, and it isn’t just individuals making this disaster,” the ad insisted.

The lacrosse incident is a textbook example of what Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson calls “social disaster” (a phrase used in the ad). “Social disaster” refers to complex power arrangements that underpin even minor events and give those events symbolic (and disturbing) meaning for society as a whole.

The lacrosse incident became one of the top news stories of 2006 because Americans saw the case as symbolic of many of their deepest social concerns. Race, gender, sexuality, class, athletics, the South, poverty, privilege, the younger generation: those are some features of the brew that captured the world’s attention and fed its moral voyeurism.

Like the other faculty members who signed the ad, I constantly receive e-mails asking me to rescind my signature. Some people write out of real misery for their children, Duke students who are distraught that their friends may have been falsely accused and unfairly treated. They believe professors have sided against the lacrosse players, and they are outraged. If we had written what they suppose, we would deserve their anger. But we didn’t.

I empathize deeply with these parents and friends. I regret the additional pain they felt when they heard about this ad. However, when I send them the actual ad, they are often surprised that it does not condemn the lacrosse players but focuses on larger campus and national concerns. I was touched, recently, when one mother concluded our thoughtful exchange by noting that she still didn’t like the ad, but hoped that her daughter would have the opportunity to take a class with me someday.

On the other hand, most of my e-mail comes from right-wing “blog hooligans.” These hateful, ranting and sometimes even threatening folks don’t care about Duke or the lacrosse players. Their aim is to make academics and liberals look ridiculous and uncaring. They deliberately misrepresent the faculty and manipulate the feelings of those who care about the lacrosse players in order to foster their own demagogic political agenda. They contribute to the problem, not to the solution.

We are in the midst of a social disaster where 18 percent of the American population lives below the poverty line and a disproportionate number of those are African-American. We live in the midst of a social disaster where 30 percent of our students do not graduate from high school (making the U.S. No. 17 in the world). We live in the midst of a social disaster where women’s salaries for similar jobs are substantially less than men’s (and, as of this year, starting to go down again, not up). We live in the midst of a social disaster where we do not have national health care or affordable childcare. And we live in a situation where a group of white athletes at a prominent university can get drunk and call out for a stripper the way they would a pizza.

Who is that exotic dancer? A single mother who takes off her clothes for hire partly to pay for tuition at a distinguished historically black college. Of course the lacrosse story makes Americans of conscience cringe.

There is also a different kind of social disaster in this incident, one that we didn’t know about in April. I refer to a prosecutor who may well have acted unprofessionally, irresponsibly and unethically, possibly from the most cynical political motives. If it turns out that Mike Nifong has no evidence (as he insisted he did back in the spring), he will have betrayed the trust of an entire community and caused torment to these young men and their families. He will have added greater skepticism at every imaginable level to an already shaky legal system.

Nor is it only the lacrosse players who will be marked forever by this case. Will future rape victims dare to step forward after such a spectacle? Will African-Americans with legitimate grievances be willing to demand justice in the wake of this public debacle? On every level, this has been a social disaster.

That is why I signed the ad. It is an educator’s job to bring the lessons of history to bear as we try to understand the full and on-going social implications of what happened long before March 13, 2006, and will continue long after. Studying this social disaster must be on the lesson plan for our future, no matter what happens next in this miserable incident.

(Cathy N. Davidson is Ruth F. DeVarney professor of English and interim director and professor )


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