Monday, December 10, 2007

For the Record: Group of 88

A central element of attempts to rehabilitate the Group of 88’s statement—which began with Cathy Davidson’s January 5, 2007 op-ed, continued with the Piot article, and has now the Robert Zimmerman blog postings—has been the suggestion that the Group of 88’s statement, unfairly, attracted attention.

In a recent comment, Prof. Zimmerman characterized a Liestoppers analysis as a “flogging” of the Group’s statement. This remark came in a post in which Prof. Zimmerman had hailed a new analysis of the statement by Prof. Brian Leiter, who contended that the Group of 88’s ad didn’t presume guilt by stating that something “happened” to Mangum; by thanking protesters who presumed guilt; or by including lines such “I wonder now about everything . . . if something like this happens to me” and “I can’t help but think about the different attention given to what has happened from what it would have been if the guys had been not just black but participating in a different sport, like football, something that’s not so upscale.” Prof. Zimmerman appeared oblivious to the irony of criticizing one analysis of the Group’s statement as “flogging” in a post that had praised a new analysis that fit his preconceptions of the Group.

The insinuation of Davidson, Piot, Zimmerman, et al: 88 professors, and (allegedly, if, as it turns out, falsely) five academic departments, and ten academic programs issued a full-page ad at a time when the eyes of the local, state, and national media were on Durham—but they didn’t think anyone would notice the document.

Leave aside, for a moment, the all-but-unprecedented nature in the history of American higher education of 88 faculty members taking out a fullpage advertisement denouncing their own students. Leave aside, also, the fact that the ad represented a breathtaking violation of academic procedure—claiming the endorsement of academic departments even though these departments hadn’t voted on the question; and being funded, contrary to Duke rules, out of official departmental funds. And leave aside that both the Chronicle editorial page and defense lawyers almost immediately took notice of the document.

Those elements alone would have ensured that the ad would receive considerable attention.

Leave aside, also, the counterintuitive notion that 88 faculty members would take the time to affix their signatures to a statement that they hoped people wouldn’t see. And leave aside that Wahneema Lubiano solicited signatures by stating that the ad would be “about the lacrosse team incident,” not a generic commentary on racism or sexism at Duke or anywhere else.

What makes the Group revisionism so troubling is that it so directly contradicts the spring 2006 words and actions of the Group itself. Indeed, the Group did everything it could to ensure that people would pay attention to its statement.

After all, the Group members printed their statement in what they themselves considered as “the most easily seen venue on campus.”

They also committed themselves to collective action in the future, promising that they would be “turning up the volume” to advance their agenda.

For those who missed the statement in the Chronicle, the African-American Studies Program homepage linked to the Group’s handiwork for at least 132 days (through August 23, 2006) after the ad appeared. Since the program’s paying for the ad violated Duke rules, linking to the ad on the program’s official homepage likewise would seem to have been a violation of Duke standards.

The ad, moreover, wasn’t buried in a corner of the page: as seen below, the entire homepage was redesigned to highlight the ad, with the top third of the screen redone in solid black. “What Does a Social Disaster Sound Like?” appeared in white, accompanied by links to the ad and the list of signatories.

In addition to thanking the protesters for not waiting, the Group rushed the ad into print. In early April 2006, DNA test results that defense attorneys had promised would clear their clients were due any day. It was widely assumed that negative test results would—as Nifong’s office had promised in the March 23, 2006 NTO—end the case.

So Group leaders sprung into action. Then-AAAS chairman Charles Payne told other department chairs that they needed commit to endorsing the ad by 11am, April 4. (Payne, who has since left Duke for the University of Chicago, gave no explanation for the rush.) Wahneema Lubiano gave potential signatories 48 hours to decide whether to sign; as the deadline for the April 6 Chronicle edition neared, she shortened the window of opportunity to six hours. It has been widely rumored that at least some Group members signed off without even seeing a final draft of the ad; the AAAS Department has, to date, refused to release earlier drafts of the ad or a list of when each signatory committed to support the document; Lubiano, in fact, recently released a statement that she will not make this material public.

It’s not hard to see why Lubiano and Payne were so eager to get the ad into print quickly. Two days after the negative test results came back, Lubiano and Group member Thavolia Glymph were part of a panel that held things were “moving backwards on campus” because of the lack of DNA matches.

In short, the Group:

  • Rushed the ad into print, to increase the chances that it would be published while the case was still alive;
  • Placed it in what Group signatories themselves described as the most easily seen venue on campus;
  • Stated that five departments had officially endorsed the statement, a claim that proved to be false but that nonetheless gave the ad additional gravitas at the time;
  • Kept the statement available—in a high-profile fashion—for more than four months on an official program webpage.

I’ve no doubt that as they affixed their signatures to the document, most Group members didn’t think of what would happen when the lacrosse players or their attorneys noticed it. And I doubt they gave much thought to what would happen when those who challenged their race/class/gender worldview saw the document. Perhaps if they had done so, they would have been more careful about what they wrote.

But to describe the record above as the behavior of people who were not eager for their words to attract attention defies both common sense and logic.