As John in
Wells’ disturbing record on the lacrosse affair began with his April 2 sermon, when he contextualized the “disputed facts of an ugly evening” (on which, he said, he would await “forensic evidence”) as part of “a disturbingly extensive experience of sexual violence, of abiding racism, of crimes rarely reported and perpetrators seldom named, confronted, or convicted, of lives deeply scarred, of hurt and pain long suppressed.”
Wells further denounced “the subculture of reckless ‘entitlement’, sexual acquisitiveness and aggressive arrogance,” which “undermines the university because it corrupts the imagination on which the whole university rests. It breaks the university’s law.” Indeed, fretted the chaplain, “the last week has exposed the reality that sexual practices are an area where some male students are accustomed to manipulating, exploiting and terrorizing women all the time—and that this has been accepted by many as a given.”
Someone with such a view of the lacrosse case, I suppose, would see no difficulty in giving the pulpit to the head of an organization whose statements and actions have been cited as grounds for a change of venue in a case against students of Wells’ own school.
I decided to watch the webcast of Barber’s sermon to hear what he had to say. With copious references to Martin Luther King, Jr., Barber organized his talk around the “devastation of denial” when Pontius Pilate gave into the mob and denied clemency for Jesus.
“The refusal to acknowledge what is right in front of us,” declared Barber, “can be devastating,” even more so when accompanied by a denial of responsibility to change what is bad. Any “attempt to deny injustice covers us with the blood of guilt,” since “all the denial in the world will not save us from ultimately having to face reality.” To replace this atmosphere, “what we need today is a theology of truth and not denial.”
Following this link will bring up a document based on denial, not truth. A photograph of Barber himself frames a legal memorandum riddled with such case-related inaccuracies as:
- “The only Black [lacrosse] player, a freshman, left the party before the dancers arrived.”
- “After about three minutes of dancing . . . there were racial remarks made.”
- “Around 12:20, some men who saw the vulnerable Ms. M returning to the house called their friends who had taken cabs and gone to get some cash from an ATM.”
- “Theresa Arico, the SANE coordinator at
said ‘there was a certain amount of blunt force trauma present to create injury’.” Duke Hospital
Barber, alas, seems reluctant to apply his desired “theology of truth” to his own organization’s statements. Instead, the NAACP head tailored his remarks to fit the organization’s new talking points—namely, that any dismissal of the case would be based on prosecutors caving in to public opinion rather than acting on the merits. “Pontius,” reminded the Reverend, “denied his responsibility that wrong was occurring before him in the court of public opinion,” and his “denial led to a great injustice.”
“We cannot deny the reality around us,” preached Barber, “or the responsibility as the church to seek change.” He cited as one example the problem of minority children, who too often in this country receive an inadequate education.
If I didn’t know better, I might have assumed that with those remarks, Barber was referring to former Duke lacrosse player Kevin Coleman, who received a 2005 ACC Service Award for his record of community service. In addition to working at the Duke Children’s Hospital and the
In fact, more than 10 lacrosse players from last year’s team participated in the Read with the Devils initiative, seeming to put Barber’s words into practice. And the team’s commitment to the program has been longstanding.
Of course, Barber was referencing neither Coleman nor any other lacrosse player. In his comments on the case, the NAACP chair continued his organization’s practice of lionizing the accuser, wondering, “What about a society where young ladies even have to consider sexual occupation for financial sustainment, or to use those things as a flawed attempt to gain self-esteem?”
Barber’s question, it would seem, would best be directed to Group of 88 member Mark Anthony Neal, who this summer informed readers of Duke Magazine that “[t]he strip club is the new church,” a development 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.
Of course, Barber did not call out Neal, a professor in the African-American Studies Department, though his target was “right on this campus and in this community.” He asked listeners to “set aside the criminal charges for a moment, set aside what the courts will do about various things.” (So much, apparently, for the pre-Nifong recusal NAACP party line that only the courts could determine the facts.) “What about having parties with strippers and drunkenness,” mused Barber, “and reports of racial slandering?”
The NAACP has a long and distinguished history. But advocating temperance has never formed a critical or even secondary element of its agenda. Nor has it frequently been associated with Victorian standards of sexual morality.
Meanwhile, the state organization’s concern with a racially charged argument between Kim Roberts and one or two lacrosse players would seem more genuine had the state NAACP also denounced the racialist rhetoric of Houston Baker; or the revenge-thirsty Chan Hall; or the former Durham NAACP chairman’s recent claim that “the racist media and NC Bar Association . . . wrongfully used their influence to attack the integrity of a prosecutor at the rare time he prosecutes a case which profoundly has the potential to challenge racism, classism, and sexism simultaneously.”
But Barber was silent on all these issues. Instead, he wondered “about the real issue of sexual violence against so many women.” He asked his listeners to “set some things [about the case] aside, we can’t deny it.” This interpretation harkened back to Group of 88 member Wahneema Lubiano’s springtime assertion that “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.” In short, if the “facts” fail to fit the desired narrative, simply “set some things aside” and continue forward, rather than admit error.
Barber chillingly summed up the consequences of refusing to follow his demands: “If we deny God’s call to face reality, to change reality, then we sin, and the blood is on our hands.”
One person who attended the service e-mailed me to say that she walked out when Barber denounced the lacrosse players.
Barber concluded his sermon by observing, “Nothing is worse than to know better and deny a responsibility to do better.” These words serve as a fitting epitaph for the state NAACP’s performance in this case. An organization that long has committed itself to procedural regularity and protecting the rights of the accused has sacrificed its legacy upon the altar of racial politics.
Wells possesses wide leeway to invite whomever he wants to preach. But is it unreasonable to expect a University chaplain to avoid people who have gone out of their way to portray Duke students in what is at best a highly misleading and at worst an outright inaccurate fashion?
Hat tip: W.W.