Last week, the N&O’s Peder Zane profiled Duke faculty member Tim Tyson’s efforts to examine the racial history of the South; the article revealed that “Pender and New Hanover counties District Attorney Benjamin R. David’s mother signed up for the course last year, then convinced her son that the class would help his efforts to build trust across communities.” Given his race-based assumptions on the lacrosse case, the idea that Tyson is providing any intellectual assistance to any law enforcement official is—to put it mildly—troubling.
Several people e-mailed Zane to note the contradiction between Tyson’s performance in the lacrosse case and his apparently newfound support for due process. Zane followed up with Tyson, and blogged on the matter yesterday.
Tyson’s responses should surprise no one who has followed the case: the apparent inability of the Group of 88 and its sympathizers to apologize for their actions (or, in the case of figures such as Susan Thorne, to retract their apologies under pressure from other Group members) continues unabated.
I’m reprinting Zane’s interview with Tyson below, with comments added seriatim.
Q: In the days since we ran the story about your Southern history and racial reconciliation work, I have heard from a number of readers who thought the piece should have been more questioning. In particular, they wanted to ask about your statements on the Duke lacrosse case, which they see tend to see as a failure of vision on your part.
Tyson: I agree with your critics that the piece you wrote on my work was incomplete and did not give a sufficiently complex picture of me. For example, I threw spitballs in Ms. Dorothy Ashley’s English class in the seventh grade, and she was a saint, and also nearly blind. It was a low point. There have been others.
It’s not clear whether Ms. Allison was African-American, and Tyson’s decision to throw spitballs at her was racially charged. Otherwise, it’s hard to see the relevance of this incident to a discussion of racial reconciliation and Southern law enforcement. The lacrosse case, on the other hand, directly dealt with themes of race and the law.
[Tyson]: But I disagree with your critics that somehow my utterances on the Duke lacrosse fiasco represent a serious stumble. None of us has a crystal ball and, if I could have had a God’s-eye view and seen all the way to the end of the story, if anything ever really ends, I might have spoken a little differently. But in all honesty, and with a little surprise, I still would not go back and change what I said very much. I could be wrong, but it appears to me that some who have complained about my words did not hear what I said or heard very selectively.
Following the first reports on the lacrosse incident, I made two public statements. One was printed in the News and Observer and the other broadcast on WUNC radio. In the newspaper piece, I criticized the Duke students for hiring strippers from across the tracks, which in my view put them in the position of using people as things, adding that ‘the question of whether they also committed rape is one we must leave to the courts and to the police.’ I also described the historical context in which these events occurred, which is not the same thing as saying precisely what occurred, which is not something I knew, even though I read all the press accounts, many of which turned out to be deceptive. But I am a historian and I do not believe everything I read in the newspaper.
In the WUNC radio piece, I stated that ‘it is important for us to remember that an investigation is pending, and the police are the only people qualified to figure out what happened in that house altogether, and we have to support [the police] as they do that dirty job of trying to figure out what kind of ugly things unfolded there. But it’s clear even in the most favorable reading of this that what we have is young men of privilege who have somehow learned that other people could be treated as things.’ I acknowledged that the accused may not be guilty, but stated that ‘even if the charges of rape are not true, there was a terribly degrading spectacle unfolding that night.’
Tyson left out a few items from the summary of his activities. First, in addition to his two public statements, Tyson was one of two Duke professors (Faulkner Fox was the other) to have publicly acknowledged attending the March 25, 2006 candelight vigil outside the lacrosse players’ house. He did so, he informed WUNC’s Frank Stasio, in his capacity “as a teacher,” because Crystal Mangum was “somebody’s daughter and somebody’s sister and somebody’s mother and somebody’s sweetheart.” [emphasis added]
Ironically, at almost the same time as the vigil, Mangum was videotaped at the Platinum Pleasures Club, dancing in a most limber fashion. No evidence exists that Tyson has ever protested against the Pleasures Club, or has called for local or state government authorities to shut down exotic dancing establishments, even though the women in such establishments are, presumably, “somebody’s daughter and somebody’s sister and somebody’s mother and somebody’s sweetheart.”
Tyson also neglected to mention to the N&O that in his interview with WUNC, he offered the following, quasi-legal analysis:
One of the really terrible things about this is that these young men are banding together and refusing to cooperate with the police investigation. I think that may be illegal. It’s certainly a violation of the spirit of the honor code of the university. It’s a terrible moral miscalculation that I think you have to be utterly blind to pursue . . . I wouldn’t—if I were in President Brodhead’s shoes, and I think he fills those shoes mighty well—I think I wouldn’t let this team continue to exist until the police get some cooperation from them. [emphasis added]
His WUNC statement (which, to my knowledge, Tyson has never retracted or amended) was (a) factually inaccurate, since the captains had completely cooperated with police; and (b) about as bald a dismissal of basic civil liberties as anything offered by any Duke faculty member at any point in the case. No wonder Tyson neglected to bring it up in his e-mail to Zane. Does Tyson continue to believe that the decision of the lacrosse players other than the captains to postpone unsupervised interviews with Sgt. Mark Gottlieb might have been “illegal”?
[Tyson]: This [his negative portrayal of the lacrosse players’ behavior] all seems fairly self-evident to me. In fact, given what was being printed in the newspaper and the statements issued by the District Attorney. I am surprised that a person as impassioned and opinionated as me would have the presence of mind to consistently remind people to withhold judgment. Raising questions and making people think, as opposed to running for public office, for example, is the nature of my work, and ‘provocative’ is not an insult to a teacher. But people are free to disagree. Your head is not just a hair farm and none of us is going to see things in exactly the same light.
No one would argue that being provocative is a bad thing. On the other hand, there’s little value in being provocative simply for the sake of being provocative. Moreover, Tyson (like many Duke faculty) continues to overlook the requirements of Chapter Six of the Duke Faculty Handbook requires professors to treat all Duke students—regardless of their race, class, gender, or athletic status—with “respect and consideration,” as “fellow members of the university community.”
Q: The statement that seems to rankle people the most is from the News and Observer essay, where you say that ‘the spirit of the lynch mob lived in that house on
Buchanan Street.’ Many seem to believe that the real lynch mob was the one outside the house condemning the lacrosse players in advance of a trial. How do you respond to that critique?
Tyson: First, I would remind readers first of what I said at the time, which consistently included that my view that the guilt of the accused was ‘one that we must leave to the courts and to the police.’ I continue to regard that as a reasonably thoughtful stance, especially given the statements of the District Attorney’s office that appeared in the press.
Lynching is murder. It therefore is rather difficult to imagine how most people would have interpreted a comment that “the spirit of the lynch mob lived in that house on
[Tyson]: But more than that, let me remind you that even though it is obvious that the rape charges were false, as I said they might be at the time, that we had a room full of drunken Duke students, all of them white, [emphasis added] using an African American woman as live pornography, and that one of them was apparently brandishing a broomstick and offering to use it as a sexual device.
Not all the students at the party were white—African-American lacrosse player Devon Sherwood attended the party, as he told ABC News in October 2006. But why should Tyson let the facts interfere with his racialized metanarrative?
[Tyson]: And one of the neighbors, who presumably has no axe to grind, reported racial epithets being hurled in the yard. That seems to justify the metaphor, in my mind. But of course, it is clear now that there was some mob mentality on both sides.
Tyson’s attempt to rationalize his “lynch mob” statement raises two questions. First, Tyson is now describing the party in quite different terms than he did in spring 2006. Here’s how he described the party to WUNC:
We have this ghastly spectacle of these rich boys wanting her to dance naked, and making racially degrading remarks. The neighbors who have no ax to grind in this, presumably, seem to confirm the charges of the women that there were a lot of racial insults thrown. [emphases all added]
Of course, we now know that: (a) the racially charged argument occurred in the yard (as Tyson now concedes) and not when “these rich boys [were] wanting her to dance naked,” as he implied in 2006; (b) that a report of the racially charged argument was made by “one of the neighbors” (as Tyson now concedes), who reported one racial insult, not by “neighbors” who reported “a lot of racial insults thrown,” as he contended in 2006; and (c) at the time of his “lynch mob” claim, the allegation of racial taunts had been made by one of the women (Kim Roberts), not both “women,” as Tyson stated in 2006.
Second, this shift in Tyson’s storyline suggests that the Duke professor has been following events since he made his spring 2006 “lynch mob” assertion, and has adjusted his story accordingly. (In theory, of course, professors are supposed to be open-minded, and reconsider flawed theses as new facts come to light; Tyson appears unwilling to engage in such self-reflection.) Yet even though Tyson is clearly aware of new information, he continues to assert, “One of the neighbors, who presumably has no axe to grind, reported racial epithets being hurled in the yard. That seems to justify the [lynch mob] metaphor, in my mind.”
Kim Roberts, the second dancer, explained the argument in some detail, to 60 Minutes. As the party was dispersing, she issued a racially charged taunt, and a lacrosse player responded with a racially charged slur. How does that history “justify,” as Tyson now claims, his extraordinarily inflammatory March 2006 statement that “the spirit of the lynch mob lived in that house on
Q: Given all that has transpired, what do you consider to be the lasting lessons of the Duke lacrosse incident?
Tyson: Several things occur to me. First, when you set out to use people as things, you are headed for trouble. Many people act as if the young men of the lacrosse team are literally innocent, which is true in the legal sense of the word. I am glad they did not go to jail and I am sorry that they endured such an ordeal. But I continue to believe that hiring strippers or prostitutes for student\parties is wrong and also misguided.
Ask yourself this: if hiring these women to perform live pornography is perfectly fine, why don’t the sororities at Duke organize a Duke Escort Service to raise money for charity? It would be lucrative. And charities could use the money. But we would not do that because the university community regards its students as human beings, children of God, worthy of respect, and we don’t want our sisters and daughters to be regarded as things to be used. Instead, when we want to degrade someone as an object, we pay someone to be not-quite-human. We hire people whom we feel less obligated to care about to do our dirty work.
And those people are always the less powerful, whether because of their race or gender or their economic position. The negotiation in the market for human things is almost never strictly a free market, but instead those people are in a weak negotiating position. Their poverty, weakness and vulnerability—their addiction to drugs, for example, or their position in a racial caste system —places them in a poisonous labor pool, in the gutters of our society, where we prefer not to look, lest we see our own reflections. The heart of the problem, like so many others, is what Dr. King called the “thingification” of human beings. The phrase is not quoted as often as “I have a dream,’ but I think these may be his most enduring message.
A Duke faculty member, asked to reflect on the “lasting lessons of the Duke lacrosse incident,” doesn’t even mention the dangers of prosecutorial misconduct. He doesn’t even mention the dangers of popular, media, or faculty rush to judgment. He doesn’t even mention the poisonous nature of racialized political appeals, such as that offered by Mike Nifong in the November 2006 election.
No, for Tyson, the lesson of the lacrosse case is the nature of the party. That view, it’s worth noting, reflects a certain hard-line moral outlook; and I suspect that some faculty members at, say, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty College or at Brigham Young University would second Tyson’s analysis that the inappropriate nature of the party is the most significant lasting lesson of the case.
But beyond the unusual nature of a far-left figure such as Tyson offering a moral analysis associated with institutions of the religious right, Tyson’s moralistic view of the case raises a question. In spring 2007, another group of Duke students held a party. Underage drinking occurred; there were also allegations of drug use. An attendee at the party claimed that she was raped; police subsequently made an arrest.
Yet a Lexis/Nexis search reveals no comment about the affair by Tyson. Given the highly moralistic worldview he expressed to the N&O, this silence is puzzling. Surely the fact that in the 2007 incident the accuser was white and the accused African-American cannot account for Tyson’s silence?