There is no need to go over the details of the Duke case. We all have heard about the lack of evidence against the lacrosse players and the troubling behavior of Mike Nifong, the Durham district attorney. For a while, I had pondered the possibility that Nifong may have been so persuaded of the alleged victim's credibility that he felt compelled to proceed with the case in spite of the lack of evidence. No more. It turns out that he did not personally interview the young woman until late last year. It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is something fishy going on.
Those of us who sometimes get impatient with the maneuvers of defense attorneys in criminal cases are being given a lesson in why prosecutors need to be counterbalanced by nit-picking, persistent, and sometimes abrasive, lawyers for the accused. Overly zealous and unprincipled prosecutors motivated by self-interest exist. We will discover in due course if Nifong is one of them. Ethics charges were filed against him by the North Carolina bar association in late December.
But Nifong is not the only one in Durham whose behavior should be examined. There are times when a community can get caught up in a lynch-mob mentality before the facts are in. Certain members of the Duke faculty have shown us that. Houston A. Baker, a professor of literature at Duke, is a good example. Baker didn't need the facts to form his opinions about what happened. (Neither did 88 other members of the Duke faculty, who issued a letter in support of protestors who branded the players as "rapists.")
Baker illustrates for us the extent to which politically correct attitudes shape the thinking in the modern academic world. (Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor infamous for calling the victims of the World Trade Center attacks "little Eichmanns," is not the only left-wing chowderhead teaching in our universities.) "Television screens," wrote Baker last spring in a public letter to the Duke administration, "tuned in to MSNBC on the morning of March 29, 2006 broadcast a headline in bold red: DUKE RAPE? At the bottom right corner of the front page of The New York Times on the same day was an article about the rape allegations roiling Duke University."
Baker went on to charge the Duke administration with a
culture of silence that seeks to protect white, male, athletic violence and which apparently prevents all university citizens from even surveying the known facts[.] How can one begin to answer the cardinal question: What have Duke and its leadership done to address this horrific, racist incident alleged to have occurred in a university-owned property in the presence of members of one of its athletic teams?
Baker used the qualifier "alleged," but he had no doubts about what had taken place:
Young, white, violent, drunken men among us — implicitly boasted by our athletic directors and administrators — have injured lives. There is scarcely any shame more egregious than one that wraps itself in the pious sentimentalism of liberal rhetoric as though such a wrap really constituted moral and ethical action.
What does Baker mean by a "pious sentimentalism of liberal rhetoric"? The presumption of innocence until proven guilty. He felt no need to extend it to "male athletes, veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech, and feel proud of themselves in the bargain," and "who may well feel they can claim innocence and sport their disgraced jerseys on campus, safe under the cover of silent whiteness."
He wanted the Duke administration to join him in his rush to judgment. He scolded them for how long it took them to make public the charges made against the lacrosse players:
The alleged crimes of rape, sodomy, and strangulation of a black woman at a party populated in some measure by the Duke lacrosse team reportedly occurred on March 13. University administrators knew about and had begun to respond internally within twenty-four hours following the incident. But Duke University citizens had no public word from our university leadership until President Richard Brodhead called a press conference on March 28. Two weeks of silent protectionism left all of us vulnerably ignorant of the facts. Receiving emails and telephone calls of concern from friends nationally and internationally, we have been deeply embarrassed by the silence that seems to surround this white, male athletic team's racist assaults (by words, certainly — deeds, possibly) in our community.
You read that right. Baker was upset because the authorities at Duke took two weeks to investigate this story before making public comment. It has taken nearly a year for all the inconsistencies of the charges against the players to surface. But Baker wanted immediate action. "It is difficult to imagine a competently managed corporate setting in which such behavior would be tolerated (and swept under the rug), or where such a ‘team' would survive for more than a day before being tossed out on its ears by security." He held those reluctant to condemn the players guilty of that "timorous piety and sentimental legalism" which, "in the opinion of the author James Baldwin, constitutes duck-and-cover cowardice of the first order."
He scolds the Duke administration for disregarding the "clear urgency about the erosion of any felt sense of confidence or safety for the rest of us who live and work at Duke University." He chastised them for ignoring "the black woman who their violence and raucous witness injured for life[.]" Will, he asks, this "black woman injured by the white lacrosse team's out-of-control violent partying ever sleep again? Will she ever again rest in her life?"
And when will those passing the house where the rape is alleged to have occurred ever forget that dark moment brought on them by a group of drunken Duke boys? Duke University's higher administration has engaged in precisely such a tepid and pious legalism with respect to the disaster of recent days: the actual harm to the body, soul, mind, and spirit of black women who were in the company of Duke University lacrosse team members as far as any of us know.
Professor Baker was also outraged by the reluctance of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski to join him in condemning the lacrosse players before the facts were known.
Why aren't such stalwarts of Duke athletics publicly and courageously addressing the horrors that have occurred in their own domain? We remember the very first day of our new President's administration — how he and Coach K shared the media dais, and the basketball magnate was praised for his bold leadership.
But Baker sees no leadership in those who were "tepid in their moral response to abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us."
He asks, "How many mandates concerning safe, responsible campus citizenship must be transgressed by white athletes' violent racism before our university's offices of administration, athletics, security, and publicity courageously declare: enough! How many more people of color must fall victim to violent, white, male, athletic privilege before coaches who make Chevrolet and American Express commercials" are willing "to damn the unconscionable?" Baker continues: "How soon will confidence be restored to our university as a place where minds, souls, and bodies can feel safe from agents, perpetrators, and abettors of white privilege, irresponsibility, debauchery and violence?"
Look: nothing good happened at that house in Durham that night. From all accounts a good number of the Duke lacrosse players seem to be examples of the coarse and vulgar "Animal House" behavior that can be found on many college campuses these days. If a son of mine had been at that party that night, I would be all over him for acting like a sleazy lowlife. But that sort of stupidity and vulgarity is a far cry from rape. Members of the Duke faculty, such as Professor Baker, were willing to disregard these distinctions and join in a chorus that would have sent these lacrosse players to prison for something that it is becoming clearer with each passing day that they did not do.
Baker writes of a "dark moment" at Duke. Precisely. But it has more to do with people like him than these lacrosse players.