Duke graduate student Richard Bertrand Spencer has penned perhaps the single most perceptive commentary on the Group of 88’s intellectual origins. Spencer, a Ph.D. candidate in European intellectual history, explores “the ‘foundational myths’ that underlie the Group’s response and give meaning to its claims,” and in the process helps explain why the lacrosse case “has left serious people with a sense that something has gone terribly wrong with Duke’s academic culture.”
Spencer contends that the Group actually consists of “two subgroups: professional black activists and rather tame liberals.” In the former category, he cites figures such as Houston Baker and Mark Anthony (“thugniggaintellectual”) Neal; Spencer also could have pointed to professors such as Waheema Lubiano, Grant Farred, and Thavolia Glymph (things were “moving backwards” after the negative DNA tests). While some in this “professional activist element . . . are prolific scholars, many others have achieved tenure with little or nothing in the way of publications or research. Many of these professors can only justify their presence at Duke—and their six-figure salaries—through their campus politics. The lacrosse case gave them something to do.”
This faction’s “foundational myth”? That Duke students embody (to borrow Farred’s phrase) “secret racism.” As Spencer observes, this myth informs Mark Anthony Neal’s
claim that whenever he “rolls into the classroom on the first day of class,” there is always somebody “in the house quietly utter[ing] ‘who’s the nigger?’” That a professor heard students whispering the N-word at politically correct Duke approaches the outer limits of credibility. What’s more instructive is Neal’s response: “I’m the nigga that gonna intellectually choke the living s- -t out of you.”
These figures—along with their well-published colleague, Karla Holloway—have attracted a good deal of public (and blog) attention, in part because of their tendency toward high-profile, outrageous statements. But, Spencer argues, such “professional victims” form a minority in the Group, many of whose members “are legitimate scholars and achieved tenure on the basis of merit.” The Group, after all, included some of the biggest scholarly names in Duke’s humanities and social sciences departments—people such as Alice Kaplan, or William Chafe, or Frank Lettrichia. In their scholarship, Spencer contends, they exhibit “an acumen and responsibility absent from their writings on the lacrosse case.”
The “foundational myth” for this second cohort of Group of 88 members involves “a kind of ‘primal scene’ of sexual-racial oppression.” Chafe’s infamous Chronicle op-ed, which argued that the whites who lynched Emmett Till provided the appropriate historical context through which to view the lacrosse players’ behavior, captured the sentiment. In a less-cited passage from the column, Chafe wrote,
Sex was an instrument by which racial power was manifested and perpetuated. Why are most African Americans of a lighter hue than Africans fromChafe left little doubt that “subsequent generations” included Duke’s own students, then the targets of Mike Nifong’s pre-primary publicity barrage. Indeed, Spencer notes, the history professor “seems unable to view the lacrosse team’s hiring of a black stripper outside the ‘context’ of his gothic portrayal of miscegenation.”
? Because at some point in the past, or present, white males have “had their way” with black women. White slave masters were the initial perpetrators of sexual assault on black women, subsequent generations continued the pattern. Nigeria
From their different starting points, then, the two primary factions in the Group came together in “viewing the case as intricately related to some kind of sexualized lynching.”
But what kind of campus environment does the Group actually want? Here Spencer is at his most perceptive—and most depressing. He cites the swift denunciations of Steve Baldwin last fall, after the Chemistry professor became the first Duke faculty member to publicly criticize the Group.
Within 24 hours, Robyn Wiegman, director of the Women’s Studies program, penned a letter to the Chronicle accusing
By “critical thought” she seems to mean empathic nodding, endless “listening,” and the complete absence of criticism directed at professors. The managerial elite in this “community” would undoubtedly be none other than Wiegman, Neal, Chafe, and Baker. In this vision of the university, one’s eagerness to “listen” to designated victims has become the chief means of securing status.
Indeed, apart from the passages that prejudged the guilt of the lacrosse players, the Group’s original statement, Spencer notes, “consists of a litany of general claims, at once hyperbolic and exceedingly vague.” And the Group’s clarity has not improved over time—as Karla Holloway recently, if inadvertently, confirmed. Responding to critics noting that the Group’s statement that something “happened” to the accuser presumed guilt, she suggested that the signatories were actually playing a guessing game with the public. Perhaps, Holloway mused, they really meant that “drunkenness” happened to the accuser.
The interview in which these comments appeared came out after Spencer’s piece went to print. But his conclusion anticipated Holloway’s bizarre claim:
That the sundry statements of the Group of 88 are incoherent, illogical, and generally poorly written is beside the point. For it is through this inarticulateness that the Group seeks to stake out a position that cannot be criticized or even rationally assessed. For them, the lacrosse case was never about a possible crime but was instead an expression of an unspeakable “terror,” “the spirit of the lynch mob,” or a fantasy of Duke undergraduates whispering the N-word. In turn, this inarticulateness affirms the utter impossibility of any actual response: the Group seeks to “cultivate a community of critical thought,” expatiate white guilt or, in Professor Neal’s case, “intellectually choke the living s- -t out of you.”
The themes explored by Spencer, of course, represent an aspect of Duke’s campus culture that seems shielded from any critical inquiry.