Thursday, February 22, 2007

Double Standards

Two cases, both involving allegations of rape at a party held in an off-campus house rented by Duke students. The disparities in the responses are striking.

The Police
In the current rape case, the police conducted the investigation, as would be expected under the Durham Police chain of command. When asked last week whether Mike Nifong was directing the investigation, Maj. L.A. Russ of the Durham Police Department replied, “We haven’t made any arrests or anything yet. He would not get involved this early.”

Yet, in the lacrosse case, Nifong did get involved “this early.” Eight days into the investigation, on March 24, Nifong assumed personal command of the case. (The district attorney has no police training, and it is unclear whether he had ever personally directed a police investigation before the lacrosse case.) Neither Russ nor any other DPD spokesperson has ever revealed what authority Nifong invoked to assume personal command of an ongoing police investigation.

Also, the police utilized different procedures in the two cases. According to Inv. A.J. Simmons, two witnesses from the party stated that they saw the suspect leave the bathroom shortly before the accuser did. Simmons wrote, “I created a photo array that contained 8 pictures, one of those pictures being Michael Burch [the suspect]. Investigator Coghill showed the photo array to [the witness] and he positively identified picture number 3 as being Michael Burch.” The second witness did the same.

In the lacrosse case, on the other hand, the photo lineup consisted of suspects only, with no fillers, unlike the seven per suspect used in the 2007 case. Moreover, in the 2007 case, Simmons, properly, had an officer unconnected with the case conduct the lineup. In the lacrosse case, the person handling things on the police side, Sgt. Mark Gottlieb, conducted the array, in violation of Durham city regulations.

Two cases, two wholly different sets of procedures.

The Neighbors
At Right Angles, Jon Ham has a must-read post analyzing the radically different responses of the Trinity Park list-serv to the two cases.

The TP list-serv was a hotbed of radicalism last March, one of the sources from which the potbangers attracted support. Ham unveils a few choice reactions:

March 25:
It will be an unmitigated outrage if all of the students who refused to co-operate with the police (i.e., the wall of silence) are not expelled directly. Whether or not Duke takes a serious attitude about obstruction of an investigation of a crime of this magnitude will say volumes about the quality of Duke leadership.
March 26:
Though the facts on exactly who committed the crime may not yet be known to us, the fact that the crime occured [sic] seems to be pretty irrefutable to me. A woman was brutally assaulted in our neighborhood. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know exactly who is guilty yet, we do know that SOMEBODY (several somebodies) ARE guilty. It’s just a matter of time…
The current case? Writes Ham, “What has been the reaction on the Trinity Park listserv, as of [Tuesday], since the alleged rape at the black fraternity party?
“(sound of crickets)
“That’s right.
“Not. A. Word.
“Not. A. Single. Post.”

The Faculty
In their apologia for the Group of 88, the “clarifying” faculty spoke—without supplying any evidence to support their claim—of an “atmosphere that allows sexism, racism, and sexual violence to be so prevalent on campus.”

To my knowledge, however, not one Duke professor has issued a statement condemning the 2007 fraternity party in which the rape allegedly occurred. No jeremiads about the moral evils of underage drinking, either.
Why the double standard? Orin Starn informs the N&O: “Normally with a rape case, police do the investigation, and charges are filed, and it goes through court. The lacrosse case was something of an anomaly. It became a media event that was covered and dissected and debated, both locally and nationally.”
Starn’s quote represents an example of three sentences that said nothing: we know how cases normally proceed, we know the lacrosse case was an “anomaly,” and we know it became a media event. The question is why, and on this point Starn was silent.

One way to explain Starn’s disparate reactions: since the current house is rented by non-athletes, exploiting this case would not further his crusade to transform Duke into a North Carolina version of Haverford. He proved perfectly willing to advance his personal agenda on the backs of his own school’s students (one of whom, Reade Seligmann, he had taught) in the lacrosse case.

As for the Group of 88: to use Wahneema Lubiano’s phrasing (which she now appears to be denying), in the lacrosse case, the players were “perfect offenders.” For faculty who worship at the altar of the race/class/gender trinity, for what more could they ask than a case in which a black woman was accusing white males who play a sport associated with the upper class?

The current case, on the other hand, is dangerous in terms of academic politics. Ultra-feminists—such as Robyn Weigman—contend that we always should believe women who charge rape. But the woman in this case is white, and might very well come from a more privileged background than the accused. So while “gender” points to one reaction, “race” and “class” point to another. In response, it appears that the Group of 88 will sit this issue out.

The Media
In the lacrosse case, the media almost always reported the race of the accused students. In the current case, local media outlets, chiefly the N&O, have gone out of their way not to report the race of the suspect. The policy, political correctness run amok, basically leaves the reader trying to decipher code words—the suspect, for instance, was described in the N&O as “wearing a black do-rag.”

The explanations offered for this decision were unconvincing.

According to N&O public editor Ted Vaden, managing editor John “Drescher also makes the case that in an increasingly multi-ethnic community, race is less useful as a description . . . How do you distinguish between black, brown, white, dark complexion, light complexion and other? He pointed to photographs of Barack Obama and North Carolina U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield. Not knowing their ethnicity, would a reader describe them as black or white?

“Keith Woods, dean of the Poyner Institute, a development center for journalists in Florida, makes the case that race is ethnic, not descriptive. Ethnicity, he writes, does not tell you what a person looks like. ‘All Irish-Americans don’t look alike. Why then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?’”

This line of argument reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s approach to racial issues. Playing a faux blowhard on his Comedy Central show, Colbert regularly says he has moved “beyond race”; when someone points out he is white, he responds with lines such as, “If you say so. I don’t see color.”

The University
Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta has assumed the point position in the current case. In one of his first comments on the case, he appeared—as Liestoppers observed—to shift the blame to the accuser, commenting that the situation was “part of the reality of collegiate life and of experimentation and some of the consequences of students not necessarily always being in the right place at the right time. This happens around the country. Duke is no different in that respect.”

The house rented by the fraternity members had four students; Moneta recently told the N&O that Duke had moved the quartet to temporary campus housing, because “we wanted them to be able to concentrate on their classes.” He added, “Right now, my priority is that the woman and her friends are getting the support they need.”

The administration, obviously, adopted a far less forgiving attitude regarding the lacrosse incident. The counseling angle is particularly interesting. In one of the extraordinary aspects of the University’s response—the general rule of thumb on contemporary college campuses is that the Student Life apparatus almost always overreacts—Moneta and his office provided no special counseling services for the lacrosse players, or for friends of the players who were harassed on campus. Members of the Athletic Department were left to do what they could on an ad hoc basis; their handling of this oversight is one example of Duke employees’ unsung heroism in the case.

In short, it would seem the responses between the two cases differ radically, across the board. I’d like to think that’s because some people have learned a lesson from how they responded to the lacrosse case, but I fear that would be a na├»ve contention.