Sunday, May 07, 2006

Paging Atticus Finch?

In his column this week, Jason Whitlock, a Kansas City Star writer who regularly appears on ESPN’s Sports Reporters, laments, “If the Duke lacrosse players were black and the accuser were white, everyone would easily see the similarities between this case and the alleged crimes that often left black men hanging from trees in the early 1900s.” Regardless of the truthfulness of the allegations—Whitlock reiterates that neither he nor anyone else now knows what happened—“this case seems like an updated re-enactment of To Kill a Mockingbird.” After detailing the many “uncomfortable" aspects of D.A. Mike Nifong’s investigation, Whitlock argues that the civil rights movement didn’t occur “so that the poor, black and oppressed could surrender the moral high ground and attempt to inflict injustice on the privileged,” and he fears that what is happening in Durham is “justifying a [white racist] mind-set that states: Do it to them because they’d do it to you.” He concludes by urging African-Americans in Durham to reverse course, and start “pressuring the authorities to pursue justice in the Duke lacrosse case regardless of where that pursuit leads.”

Whitlock’s words would have little effect on the likes of Duke Professor Houston Baker, a member of the Group of 88 last heard from demanding that all players on the Duke lacrosse team be expelled from school. Baker has resurfaced to dismiss the recent Coleman Committee investigation of the men’s lacrosse team. The report’s apparent fault? It failed to uncover evidence to support the professor’s previous portrayal of the team as the embodiment of “violent, white, male, athletic privilege.” Baker fumed that the report “says they are model academic citizens -- they've been on the honor roll. But there has been underage drinking. There has been bad behavior.” (The latter claims could probably apply to 80 percent of Duke’s undergrads.) The committee’s report is not “nothing, but it's as close as you can get to nothing.”

It’s worth remembering that the Coleman Committee operated under procedures almost wholly stacked against the lacrosse players: (1) Even though their behavior was being investigated, the players were not invited to testify; (2) Professors, staffers, and other Duke students were allowed to give testimony anonymously, with no representative of the players present to challenge, or even record, a witness’ version of events; (3) The committee’s charge came from an administration that certainly hasn’t bent over backwards to defend its own students. Perhaps, in writing their report, some committee members experienced a twinge of guilt as the abuses of Nifong’s investigation have become manifest, but there’s no evidence that this occurred. Nonetheless, the chair of the committee, Duke Law Professor James Coleman, former (Democratic) chief counsel of the House Ethics Committee, seems to have understood, as members of the Group of 88 have not, the importance of Duke appearing fair-minded in commenting about its own institution’s students. Baker apparently prefers Nifong’s investigating style, recently described by the Raleigh News and Observer as “disturbing” and not “open-minded.”

The investigation found that Duke has a culture of extensive underage consumption of alcohol; and that within that culture, members of the men’s lacrosse team as a whole, if not all of its members, fall at one extreme of that culture. The report also contains two previously unrevealed items: (1) When asked by the campus administration to help temper a high-profile case of the alcohol culture, the lacrosse team obliged—working to curtail Tailgate, a pre-football game drinking party--the lacrosse (and baseball) teams did exactly as asked; and (2) The immediate-after-incident image of a team “out of control,” ignoring warnings from the administration to cease “bad behavior,” or Nifong’s public portrayal of the team as “hooligans,” was false. Instead, the report describes an ineffective Duke bureaucratic structure where administrators responsible for monitoring excessive student alcohol assumption weren’t aggressive enough in making their concerns known. This is not unexpected. In a campus that suffers from an alcohol-excessive culture (which I doubt would surprise anyone who’s ever been to Durham), administrators singling out a few students risked triggering a campus-wide anti-alcohol campaign that might cause more harm than good. There’s no denying that most lacrosse players drank too much in social settings and some were arrogant in doing so; and I expect the Duke administration will use the findings of the Coleman Committee report to, appropriately, institute a new code of conduct that holds athletes to higher standards than other Duke students. Maybe it will even create the kind of campus environment envisioned in William Chafe's recent Chronicle essay, though I’m dubious.

Beyond the items on excessive alcohol consumption (where the context provided put the team’s behavior in a considerably more favorable light than known until that time), the Coleman Committee report—to Baker’s dismay—uncovered virtually nothing bad about the lacrosse players, despite a structure all but established to do so. There was, of course, the comment from a T.A.—two years after the fact—that the players sported “aggressive body language,” a convenient charge because of its vagueness and utter subjectivity. Not only did no other professor or T.A. who taught the players have anything resembling this recollection, but all had nothing but positive things to say about a team whose overall academic performance exceeded that of any other lacrosse team in the ACC, and, I suspect, a randomly selected cross-section of Duke students overall. Given the anti-athlete culture the controversy has revealed in some quarters of the Duke faculty, for all we know, the T.A.’s conception of “aggressive body language” consisted of nothing more than the players wearing lacrosse t-shirts to class. (She admitted that she could not cite a specific incident of “aggressive body language” in any way affecting the class.) Moreover, in terms of social relations, the committee found no evidence of sexist or racist behavior by the lacrosse players, despite a structure that granted anonymity without cross-examination to any and all who wanted to make such allegations. In fact, the committee uncovered copious evidence of commendable behavior, ranging from very high rates of community service to unfailing politeness to athletic staff.

Maybe, as the Duke Chronicle described the thrust of the Group of 88’s argument, Duke really is a bastion of “hate, racism, sexism and other forms of backward thinking.” But, if so, Baker and his colleagues should direct their protests to the Duke admissions staff, which, according to their version of reality, is admitting scores of flagrantly racist and sexist non-lacrosse players as Duke students.

Indeed, a striking subtext of this whole affair has been the open contempt in which faculty like the Group of 88 seem to hold many of their students, who (quite beyond whatever occurred in this incident) are guilty of being upper-middle or upper class; joining fraternities and sororities; participating in intercollegiate athletics; concentrating on their careers rather than the life of the mind; drinking too much; and holding ideas deemed inappropriate on issues relating to race, class, and gender. There’s nothing new in academics grousing about students. But at a school like Duke, save for a few superstars, faculty members derive some of their prestige from teaching at an extremely "selective" school. How strange it must be for people like Baker and other members of the Group of 88 to be surrounded by students whom they loathe, while depending on the “intake” of more of them for institutional status.

It might be, of course, that on May 15, Nifong will release a treasure trove of heretofore concealed evidence linking those he has indicted to a crime—in which case the central story will become the likelihood of his myriad procedural abuses preventing a conviction. Otherwise, columns like Jason Whitlock’s raise hope that the national consensus on this story has transformed to such an extent that local officials might return to respecting accepted legal procedures. There’s no chance, naturally, that Nifong will do so, just as there’s no chance that Houston Baker or most in the Group of 88 will abandon their preconceptions. But perhaps either the judge assigned to the case or the North Carolina attorney general’s office might take to heart words like Whitlock’s, or those of their hometown newspaper’s editorial board.

[Originally published in Cliopatria.]

No comments: