Southern Discomfort

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There's a specter looming behind the Duke lacrosse scandal. The notion of a 27-year-old black woman, who is a student at a historically black college and a single mother of two, being hired as an exotic dancer for — and then allegedly raped by — generally privileged, younger white men conjures up memories of that classic American sex story: the pretty female slave being summoned up to the big house to sexually satisfy the master.

If there’s any doubt, remember the eyewitness account of Jason Bissey who lives next door to the house where the Duke party occurred: "One guy yelled at her, ‘... Thank your grandpa for my cotton shirt’" — a cleverly subtle racist jab from one of America’s best-educated college students.

This is not to say that the lacrosse players were intentionally acting out some twisted racial power fantasy by hiring black strippers. And these turns of events have happened before. Fordham University professor Lynn Chancer, who has written extensively on race, gender and class issues in sociology and criminology, reminded me of another lacrosse team rape case —the three St. Johns University players tried for sexually assaulting and sodomizing a black female classmate in 1991. Those men were ultimately acquitted, and the jurors, including two blacks and two Hispanics, said race did not seem to have been a factor in the alleged crime, and was not one influencing their decision.

Racial overtones aside, sexual assault is a horrifyingly common crime in this country (about one in six American women is a victim of rape or attempted rape, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). The town-gown relations between Duke and Durham have been historically uneasy. And one would expect better from students at one of the country's top-ranked universities. We definitely expect better than the vile e-mail written by one of the players, Ryan McFayden, in which he invited his friends to watch him kill more strippers and "cut their skin off."

Each of these elements alone presents its own intrigue. But together they make for one of the most combustible, and, says Bonnie Thornton Dill, Director of the Consortium on Race, Gender and Ethnicity at the University of Maryland, "recurrent dramas in American history." Dill likens the Duke narrative to the debate surrounding the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. "Race, class, gender and sexuality are woven together so tightly here that they cannot be separated," she says. "You cannot understand this by looking at it through a single lens of any one of these dimensions."

When most people, myself included, think of racism against black Americans, we usually think of men — situations like police pulling over black male drivers, Klansmen dragging black men through the streets, the systemic problems that land black men in prison at seven times the rate of white men.

The fiasco at Duke reminds us of the vulnerability of black women, of most minority women in America who have never been protected from sex crimes by (white) men — at least not in the way that white women were historically "protected" from black men. That notion of protecting the white female chastity was the impetus behind anti-miscegenation laws, and countless lynchings — including those of Emmitt Till, and, less famously, James Cameron, a black man who was accused of murder and rape in Marion, Ind., in 1930 and survived his attempted lynching, though his two co-defendants did not. Anticipating his imminent death at the hands of the angry mob, Cameron (who was later exonerated from both crimes) recalled, "The realization dawned on me that I had crossed the boundary into the most sacred area of all, the world where white women lived." On the other hand, Dill says, "there is the stereotype of black female sexual availability, which meant that at earlier points in our history it was not considered reasonable to think a black woman could be raped."

News observers have noted the round-the-clock TV coverage given over to one of the media’s favorite stock victims, the missing white woman. In that context, I almost welcome the constant updates from Durham. It not only brings a bit of parity to how we cover alleged victims of different races, it has also, obviously, spurred conversations about race, class and sex issues that may lay dormant but have never been fully resolved.

We may never know what actually happened at the Duke party. It bears repeating that lack of DNA evidence does not mean that sex, forced or no, did not occur, and that a prior arrest for assault does not mean one of the accused is automatically capable of sexual assault. And it’s tough to tell whether McFayden’s e-mail was racially motivated, or just repulsively sadistic. But one thing’s certain: Women of color in this country — and, to an extent, women in general — still teeter on that fine line between being seen as exotic objects of desire and, well, objects.