Most elite colleges and universities offer courses that in some way expose students to the thinking of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment theorist known in part for his theories of proportional responses to offenses against the law and ethical mores.
Instead of Kantian ethics, the transformation of Duke and
We all know the basics: during the 2006 spring break, the lacrosse captains held an annual team party. They hired two exotic dancers. They served beer, even though some of the players weren’t 21. After one player made a tasteless remark, the dancers stopped their performance. One dancer was incapacitated and behaving in an erratic fashion. The evening ended on a very sour note, with a racially charged argument between the second dancer and one lacrosse player. By her own admission, the second dancer, Kim Roberts, initiated the racial taunts.
Just as we all know the basics, we all also know the torrent of criticism. In two editorials (March 28 and 30), Mike Nifong’s local propaganda organ, the Herald-Sun, said that the “consistently awful behavior of this team” demanded canceling its season. Such “obnoxious fun and games” as the party proved that the players “have themselves to blame for the current trouble. We shouldn’t pronounce anyone guilty, but sympathy is hard to muster.”
From Duke came a similarly one-sided and overpowering reaction:
- In a public letter released in late March, then-Duke professor Houston Baker opined, “It is virtually inconceivable that representatives of
’s Athletic Department would allow its lacrosse team to engage in regular underage drinking and out-of-control bacchanalia.” Duke University
- Baker’s colleague, William Chafe, suggested the whites who lynched Emmitt Till as an appropriate reference point for the lacrosse players’ actions, and later added that the players having “sanctioned underage drinking, hurled racial epithets at black people, and hired a stripper” were “all facts that by themselves warrant censure and disciplinary action.”
- The Group of 88 selected the moment to publicly denounce their students for creating a “social disaster.”
- President Richard Brodhead, after the arrests of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, told the Durham Chamber of Commerce, “If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough.”
The latter comment was a particularly dubious assertion. We know exactly what Seligmann and Finnerty did: they attended a party they played no role in organizing, and they presumably drank some beer. They had departed the house by the time of the racially charged argument between Roberts and one of the players.
How uncommon—or common—were the actions of Seligmann and Finnerty? For some anecdotal evidence, take a look at webshots.com, a photo hosting service. Typing in “spring break party” reveals 79,229 photos; “spring break drunk” reveals 44,761 pictures; and “spring break beer” brings up 30,809 snapshots.
On the statistical side, five days before the lacrosse party, the American Medical Association published a survey of college-aged women—a group that would seem less likely to drink, at least according to popular concepetion, than their male counterparts. Among the survey’s findings:
- 83 percent of college-aged women “had friends who drank the majority of the nights while on spring break.”
- 92 percent of college-aged women “said it was easy to get alcohol while on spring break.”
- 40 percent of college-aged women “agreed access to free or cheap alcohol or a drinking age under age 21 were important factors in their decision to go on a spring break trip.”
Does Richard Brodhead believe that as the vast majority of these college-aged women appear to have had some beer and done some spring-break partying, “whatever they did is bad enough”? Would Houston Baker use the phrase “out-of-control bacchanalia” to describe the nearly 80,000 photos of spring break parties? Would William Chafe support “censure and disciplinary action” against the 40 percent of college-aged women who “agreed access to free or cheap alcohol or a drinking age under age 21 were important factors in their decision to go on a spring break trip”?
I haven’t seen any indication that Brodhead, Chafe, or Baker would answer yes to any of these questions. Their silence in not condemning behavior by others that they deemed so worthy of censure by lacrosse players is, therefore, puzzling.
Perhaps the vitriolic censure from the Duke and
As a college professor, I don’t spend much time passing judgment on the private behavior of my students—just as I wouldn’t want them passing judgment on my private behavior. The Duke faculty and administration, obviously, has a different point of view. (So does the faculty and administration of far right-wing schools, like BYU or
At least one Group of 88 member, in fact, seemed to celebrate stripper parties. Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American Studies, reasoned,
The strip club is the new church. That raises all kinds of interesting possibilities around spirituality and black bodies, dealing with issues of spirituality outside traditional notions of what spirituality in a church is supposed to be . . . When we think about women who work in strip clubs, the key component there is that word “work.” In some ways this is legitimate labor, and we need to be clear about that. And women make these decisions based on what kind of legitimate labor is in their best interest. While it’s important that black women’s sexuality not be exploited, at the same time, I don’t want to get into the business of policing black women’s sexuality, which is just as dangerous.
Another Group of 88 member, Alex Rosenberg, criticized the lacrosse players for engaging in the wrong type of sexual exploitation, while revealing himself to be prejudiced toward many of the females he taught.
A proportional response to the offenses related to the party, therefore, leaves one issue: the one player who engaged in a racially charged argument with Kim Roberts. Unlike the drinking or the hiring of strippers, this act, in and of itself, is worthy of what Chafe would term “censure.” It is a normal principle in the
The 60 Minutes Broadcast
In a recent “Our Collective Voice” posting at Liestoppers, Cash Michaels wrote about,
the disgraceful behavior of a predominately white university team at a drunken, perverted party - pictures of which were shown on “60 Minutes” and literally shocked, saddened and dismayed Durham's Black community (I know for a fact that those still pictures of the players sitting around, alcohol in hand, watching two Black women making out with each other for the pleasure of white males, may have locked in Nifong’s Black vote).
Since Michaels has unparalleled sources within the Durham African-American community, it seems reasonable to accept his portrayal of the Black community’s response to the broadcast.
Michaels’ reporting was echoed by Houston Baker, who recently denounced “the disgusting Ed Bradley 60 Minutes piece with those disgusting photos that looked like white privilege meets exotic dancers in a horrible circle of degrading (yes, of course, legal) labor.”
Among other items, the 60 Minutes broadcast featured:
- James Coleman vigorously denouncing prosecutorial misconduct;
- Coleman accusing Nifong of using the case to pander to the black vote;
- A blow-by-blow, documented demonstration of Reade Seligmann’s alibi;
- Kim Roberts dismissing critical aspects of the accuser’s account;
- Roberts revealing that, before they sought indictments, police had never spoken to her about aspects of the accuser’s account that had Roberts as a witness to the “rape” but directly contradicted Roberts’ statement to police;
- A detailed discussion of how the medical evidence failed to support the accuser's myriad, mutually contradictory, versions of events.
And yet, for many
Such a response, to put it mildly, seems very much out of proportion, especially since this vehement denunciation of college students drinking or hiring strippers (not commendable behavior by any means, but not unusual behavior, either) has been accompanied by total silence, or worse, regarding the issue of a local prosecutor and police ignoring basic ethical and legal obligations.
- The Group of 88? Silence.
- The Duke administration? Silence.
- The N&O editorial board? Two milquetoast editorials questioning Nifong’s actions earlier this spring, followed by silence.
- The Herald-Sun? Gushing support for Nifong, in both editorials and in the “news” section.
- The state NAACP? Reversing 70 years of positions on criminal justice matters to help prop up Nifong’s case.
- The local African-American community? Overwhelming political support for Nifong.
There’s something disproportionate in a community response that considers underage drinking and hiring strippers by one group (but not, apparently, by anyone else) as more significant than ethical misconduct by the county’s chief law enforcement officer.
This spring, Mark Anthony Neal announced that he hoped to leverage the case to bring about “an innovative and brave curriculum that will allow our students to engage one another in a progressive manner.”
It would seem to me that Duke and