In one of the most important publications of the case to date, Chemistry professor Steven Baldwin yesterday became the first member of the arts and sciences faculty to publicly criticize the “despicable” rush-to-judgment denunciations of his colleagues.
For Duke students,
He noted, correctly, that he did not “believe that a faculty member publicly describing any student in pejorative terms is ever justified. To do so is mean-spirited, petty and unprofessional, at the very least. The faculty who publicly savaged the character and reputations of specific men’s lacrosse players last spring should be ashamed of themselves.”
What was the context for Baldwin's words?
The process began with Houston Baker’s open letter, dated March 29. Baker has since departed for Vanderbilt, but the “emotional tyranny”—to borrow Kim Curtis’ phrase—he helped spawn remains prevalent on the Duke campus.
How is a Duke community citizen to respond to such a national embarrassment from under the cloud of a “culture of silence” that seeks to protect white, male, athletic violence and which apparently prevents all university citizens from even surveying the known facts? How can one begin to answer the cardinal question: What have Duke and its leadership done to address this horrific, racist incident alleged to have occurred in a university-owned property in the presence of members of one of its athletic teams? . . .
There is no rush to judgment here about the crime - neither the violent racial epithets reported in a 911 call to
police, nor the harms to body and soul allegedly perpetrated by white males at Durham 610 Buchanan Boulevard. But there is a clear urgency about the erosion of any felt sense of confidence or safety for the rest of us who live and work at . The lacrosse team - 15 of whom have faced misdemeanor charges for drunken misbehavior in the past three years - may well feel they can claim innocence and sport their disgraced jerseys on campus, safe under the cover of silent whiteness. But where is the black woman who their violence and raucous witness injured for life? Will she ever sleep well again? And when will the others assaulted by racist epithets while passing 610 Buchanan ever forget that dark moment brought on them by a group of drunken Duke boys? [As we know now, such passersby never actually existed.] Young, white, violent, drunken men among us - implicitly boasted by our athletic directors and administrators - have injured lives. There is scarcely any shame more egregious than one that wraps itself in the pious sentimentalism of liberal rhetoric as though such a wrap really constituted moral and ethical action. Duke University
Duke University’s higher administration has engaged in precisely such a tepid and pious legalism with respect to the disaster of recent days: the actual harm to the body, soul, mind, and spirit of black women who were in the company of lacrosse team members as far as any of us know . . . Duke University
There can be no confidence in an administration that believes suspending a lacrosse season and removing pictures of Duke lacrosse players from a web page is a dutifully moral response to abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us . . .
How soon will confidence be restored to our university as a place where minds, souls, and bodies can feel safe from agents, perpetrators, and abettors of white privilege, irresponsibility, debauchery and violence?
Surely the answer to the question must come in the form of immediate dismissals of those principally responsible for the horrors of this spring moment at Duke. Coaches of the lacrosse team, the team itself and its players, and any other agents who silenced or lied about the real nature of events at 610 Buchanan on the evening of March 13, 2006.
Baker’s letter, appropriately, drew an impassioned rebuke from Provost Peter Lange, in a document that represents the only time in this entire affair that a high-ranking Duke official has unequivocally stood up for due process.
But by this point, Baker had been joined by a powerful and widely respected voice: History professor and former dean of the faculty William Chafe. Chafe, whose work on the
Sex and race have been intertwined since the beginning of American history. They remain so today, throughout
and here at Duke. The events that occurred on America Buchanan Boulevardtwo weeks ago are part of a deep and troubling history . . .
Worst of all, sex was an instrument by which racial power was manifested and perpetuated. Why are most African Americans of a lighter hue than Africans from
? Because at some point in the past, or present, white males have “had their way” with black women. White slave masters were the initial perpetrators of sexual assault on black women . . . To make matters worse, white men portrayed black women as especially erotic, more driven to sexual pleasure and expressiveness than white women; and then, in a perverse form of projection, created the specter of black men seeking to rape white women. That is why most lynchings of black men in the late 19th and early 20th century were justified by accusing black men of lusting after white women-even though there was little evidence that such attacks ever took place. Nigeria
So sex and race have always interacted in a vicious chemistry of power, privilege, and control. Emmett Till was brutalized and lynched in
Mississippiin 1954 for allegedly speaking with too easy familiarity to a white woman storekeeper . . . What has all this to do with today, and with Duke? Among other things, it helps to put into context what occurred in America two weeks ago. The mixture of race and sex that transpired on Durham Buchanan Boulevardis not new. Whether or not a rape took place (and this is an issue that needs to be assessed objectively and with full fairness to everyone), there is no question that racial epithets were hurled at black people. Nor is there any question that white students hired a black woman from an escort service to perform an erotic dance. The intersection of racial antagonism and sexual exploitation is all too familiar.
Some people might consider an argument that contextualizing their actions by citing the lynchers of Emmit Till was hardly conducive to assessing the question of “whether or not a rape took place . . . with full fairness” to the lacrosse players. When I asked him about this issue, and whether he had any concerns with the district attorney’s procedural misconduct, Chafe responded, “Whether or not a sexual assault took place is something we will not know for months and is a task for the criminal-justice system to establish,” and therefore it wasn’t appropriate for him to comment on such matters.
A week after Chafe’s horrific column, he joined 87 other Duke faculty members in the statement of the Group of 88, which unequivocally asserted “something happened” to the accuser; and said “thank you” to the protesters who had publicly branded the lacrosse players rapists. The author of the statement, Wahneema Lubiano, told ESPN that she understood many would see the Group of 88’s statement as a “stake in the collective heart” of the lacrosse team. She subsequently explained her motivation in a blog posting:
Within the terms of the responses to the incident, I understand the impulse of those outraged and who see the alleged offenders as the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus. Further, this group has been responsible for extended social violence against the neighborhood in which they reside. In short, by a combination of their behaviors and what they represent in terms of social facts, and by virtue of their relation to the alleged victim, for those who are defenders of the victim, the members of the team are almost perfect offenders in the sense that Crenshaw writes about. As more information circulates and the stakes are raised by virtue of considerations of Duke’s and the nation’s long-standing class, race, and gender disparities, they are increasingly “perfected” as offenders. As part of this dynamic, the young woman, black and non-wealthy, made even more vulnerable by virtue of being employed by the perfect offenders and outnumbered, approaches the state of perfect victim. However, even within the media circulation of narratives, neither the offenders’ nor the victim’s “perfection” is absolutely complete; our own imaginations and our own language has to complete it . . .
Against this solidification of their perfectness as offenders, their defenders have to reinforce and heighten the circulation of rhetoric around a narrative, among other things, of their wonderful athletic ability, understandings of them as fine, upstanding young men or boys who are good students, the products of good homes, and the possessors of good characters attested to by their grades, their performances, and the fine characters and records of those who support them. Their perfectness as offenders has to be lessened, mitigated, or disrupted to the point that any bad behavior is forgiveable by virtue of the mitigations – mitigations such as “they aren’t any different from other young men” who drink and party in boisterous manner and, occasionally, slip over the line of acceptable behavior; therefore, what is happening to them is a horrible injustice. Their offense has to decrease in size and severity . . .
This fight of desires then extends to the question of evidence – a demand for perfect evidence on the part of the defenders of the team (a demand most spectacularly articulated by, but not limited, of course, to their lawyers). The idea that evidence, like all other aspects of the incident, is part of a circulation of narratives seems to be lost as the newspapers and the television move from one flash point to another . . .
Regardless of the “truth” established in whatever period of time about the incident at the house on N. Buchanan Blvd., the engine of outcry in this moment has been fueled by the difficult and mundane reality that pre-existed this incident and that continues to occur in everday and non-spectacular life in this place. Whatever happens with the court case, what people are asking is that something changes.
And, finally, there’s Peter Wood. After issuing a series of bizarre public statements (he told the New York Times, “The football players here are often rural white boys with baseball caps or hard-working black students who are proud to be at Duke,” unlike the upper-class lacrosse team), Wood gave a remarkable interview with Hal Crowther, whose article stated that Nifong’s critics needed to “catch a glimpse of your inner racist in the mirror”; the lacrosse players themselves, he asserts, are “subhuman.”
In the interview, Wood offered one major revelation: he had taught two of the indicted players. Since Reade Seligmann’s transcript is on-line, it was easy to verify that he had taken Wood’s “Era of the American Revolution.” Right after the mention that Wood had Seligmann in class, the professor described the lacrosse players’ personal character: “Cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive—you could almost say openly hostile.” He also posed for a photo—in front of the lacrosse field.
Wood’s going out of his way to mention he had taught two of the indicted players suggested that his descriptions of the players’ character applied to Seligmann. But I wondered whether he had been misquoted, or hadn’t intended to attack Seligmann. Surely, if there were a misunderstanding, it seemed to me that any professor would rush to correct the record, lest he appear to have falsely slandered one of his students.
Five times I emailed Wood to ask him if his comments applied to Seligmann, as the article suggested; and, if so, what evidence he had to substantiate them. (I have retained all of these e-mails.) Wood never replied. He has, in short, allowed the comments to stand.
If we’ve learned nothing else from this controversy, it’s that Duke’s faculty needs far more people like Steven Baldwin and far fewer people like Peter Wood.