On the Making of Undeserving Martyrs: Fact and Fiction in the Duke Lacrosse Case

“So now what do you have to say, smartass?”

I can think of better ways to be greeted in the morning, but sadly, this was how my day began a few weeks ago, upon opening my e-mail browser and piecing through the messages that had accumulated overnight. The author of the above missive was wanting to know, as the rest of his love note would amply reveal, my feelings about the recent dismissal of all criminal charges against the three Duke lacrosse players, who, for the past year, had been facing possible prosecution for rape.

He went on to declare their ordeal a prime case of “reverse racism,” since the accuser was black and the accused, white, and insisted that folks like me, who write about racism, would naturally never speak out about the injustice done to these “fine young men,” because we only care about black victims. We were hypocrites, to hear him tell it, and worse, since we had all rushed to judgment in this case, prepared to “lynch” the Duke 3, simply because they were white, and rich, and jocks: three groups “despised by leftists and liberals.”

Before weighing in on the issues of so-called reverse racism, and the rush to presume guilt in this case, not to mention a few important things to remember about these “fine young men,” let me note that I never previously wrote one word about this case, nor gave one speech in which I discussed the guilt or innocence of the accused, nor even speculated on the matter. So whatever others may or may not have said, or may or may not have believed, I kept my opinions to myself, awaiting the evidence, as I try to do in all cases of alleged criminality.

Let me also note, so as to acquit at least myself of the charge of being anti-sports, that I am an avid sports fan, and was a very accomplished baseball player in my youth. While it is true that competitive, for-profit athletics often engender dysfunctional social priorities among young people, and adults for that matter, I would venture to guess that it does this no more so than is the case for profit-based publishing, entertainment, filmmaking, or any other endeavor of life. It is not sports that are the problem, but rather the way in which sporting events are organized in a market-driven economy, which often distorts the players, the coaches, the fans, and the games being played.

Finally, let me be very clear that the allegations against the Duke lacrosse players were, so far as I can tell from the available evidence, horribly unjustified. The accuser was wrong to allege rape, the accused were innocent of that offense, and have every right to be bitter about the way in which the spectacle played out, in the press, and within the Durham, North Carolina District Attorney’s office. With all of that said, however, the arguments put forward by my electronic pen pal about this case couldn’t be much weaker and more absurd.

The Difference Between the Duke Case and Racial Persecution

To claim that the allegations against the lacrosse players amounted to “reverse racism,” as did the person writing me (and as have others), does violence to the English language, and utterly ignores the way in which racism truly operates. To begin with, the term reverse racism implies an equivalence with old-fashioned racism (the white on black kind) that simply doesn’t exist. With old-fashioned racism–and in truth, there’s nothing that old about it–several of the things we saw transpire in the Duke case wouldn’t have happened. The accused wouldn’t have been in a position to hire high-priced attorneys to defend them against even the most bogus of charges. Not having such attorneys, black defendants accused of raping a white woman would have likely been appointed a public defender who would have pressured them to accept a plea to a lesser charge, in return for a lighter sentence. The public wouldn’t have been nearly as inclined to rush to the defense of a black defendant, or several, had the accusations been reversed in terms of racial identity. And certainly with old-fashioned racism, the odds that the charges would have been dropped before trial would have been far more remote. Throughout our nation’s history there have been literally thousands of blacks murdered by white mobs, and/or the state for allegedly raping white women, in cases where the charges were completely without merit. The Duke lacrosse players were not murdered, not lynched, not incarcerated without bail, not even brought to trial. There is simply no equivalence here, however horrible the experience of being falsely accused surely must have been for them.

Indeed, had the racial shoes been on the other feet, so to speak, what we might well have seen is what we in fact did see in the case of Darryl Hunt: a man whose name is unknown to most, and whose story has provoked nowhere near the sympathy from conservative white folks, angered by the persecution of innocent people, as has the case of the Duke 3. But Hunt, unlike the Duke 3, was tried for the crime of which he was accused: the rape and murder of a white woman in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1984. Like the Duke players, he was falsely accused–identified as the killer by a former KKK member–and like the wealthy white men at Duke, there was no physical evidence to actually indicate his guilt. And like the Duke players, Hunt was pursued by an overzealous prosecutor, who disregarded all exculpatory evidence in his case. But very much unlike the lacrosse boys, Hunt was convicted (as it turns out, by an all-white jury), and sentenced to life in prison. Ten years later, DNA evidence proved beyond any question that Hunt was innocent of the charges. But the courts refused to exonerate or release him for an additional decade. Hunt, unlike, say, Reade Seligmann, spent nearly two decades in prison, for a crime he didn’t commit.

It’s also worth noting that the persons who prosecuted Hunt have never been threatened with professional ethics charges or disbarment, not even criticized that harshly, unlike D.A. Nifong in Raleigh, in the wake of the Duke scandal.

Presumptions of Guilt or Innocence: An all-too-common Malady

As for civil rights leaders and activists who supposedly “rushed to judgment” in this case, a few important points should be made. First, the statement signed by the Duke faculty members known as the “Group of 88,” nowhere passed judgment on the three accused men. That many have read their comments to do so suggests an inability on their part to comprehend words on a page. Instead, the statement made reference to larger issues of race and gender, and the climate for women as women, and people of color on the Duke campus. By giving voice to those who have long felt marginalized, despite very real concerns about racial and sexual harassment and abuse at Duke, the statement provided an opportunity to air those grievances, now that the community’s attention had been riveted to the larger subject matter because of the allegations against the lacrosse players.

Secondly, and more importantly, the idea that a rush to judgment on the part of some in the black community (or among those of us in the white community who do anti-racism work) was a unique break with the otherwise sacrosanct presumption of innocence is laughable. Honestly, how many of the persons blasting those who presumed the lacrosse players guilty actually keep an open mind when they hear about someone in an inner-city community, arrested for a crime? How many of them, watching the news and seeing coverage of a young black or Latino male being arrested and led to booking, honestly consider the alleged perp in such a case innocent? How many of the conservative whites condemning black activists in the Duke case, presumed Kobe Bryant was guilty of the charges brought against him, which were ultimately dropped as well? How many had decided that O.J. Simpson was guilty of double murder, even before they had heard any of the evidence in the case? How many actually keep an open mind when they hear of an NBA player accused of a crime, or “Pacman” Jones, of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, who has been accused of several offenses, but convicted as of yet on none of them? Or Barry Bonds, who has never failed a steroids test, but is presumed guilty of using the substances by pretty much every white person with an opinion on the subject?

Sadly, the rush to presume guilt in criminal cases is all too common, for most of us, myself included. And the crimes for which we rush to presume guilt probably say something about our political and ideological orientations. For those on the right, the black or Latino suspect in a carjacking, drug crime or drive-by shooting is likely to be presumed guilty because these individuals fit the reactionary image of danger and deviance. For those of us on the left, it’s likely the case that we rush to judgment, ahead of the evidence, in cases involving corporate misconduct. I will admit that I was convinced of the guilt of Ken Lay, or the Savings and Loan bandits, even before truly looking at the evidence in their respective cases. The point is, to criticize some in the black community of Durham, for example, or national commentators, for presuming the guilt of the suspects in the Duke case, is to miss how readily we all tend to violate the maxim of the presumption of innocence when looking at criminal suspects.

Indeed, for whites to lecture black folks about rushing to presume guilt in the Duke case takes nerve, especially given how quick those same whites are to believe the negative stereotypes of black folks as deviant and criminal. According to academic research, whites are highly likely to view blacks as violent and dangerous (Peffley and Hurwitz, 1998: 90), and adherence to these stereotypes is, in turn, highly correlated with a tendency to presume guilt, evidence notwithstanding, whenever the adherent is confronted with a crime that fits their mental schema regarding black criminals (Hurwitz and Peffley, 1997: 384). Ironically, this time around the defendants who fell prey to the mentality of presumed guilt, on the part of some, happened to be quite different from the traditional criminal defendant. But make no mistake, this kind of presumption is an everyday occurrence among the white public, for whom blacks in custody are seen as almost surely guilty.

And let us not forget, the rush to presume guilt has been given license by top political officials, as with former Attorney General, Ed Meese, who famously noted that, “People who have been arrested aren’t innocent.” Or for that matter, what can we call the detentions of suspects at Guantanamo Bay, who have been accused of no actual crimes, if not the institutionalization of a presumption of guilt in public policy?

Oh, and a Few Words About Those “Fine Upstanding Young Men”

And although even the most repulsive of persons doesn’t deserve to be falsely accused of a crime, especially one as serious as rape, it might do us well to step back a bit from all the acrimony and gnashing of teeth over the damaged reputations of Messrs. Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans, to remember one important detail. Namely, had these men, and their teammates not set out that evening to sexually objectify women, by hiring strippers in the first place to entertain them, none of this would have ever happened.

In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, the Duke 3, though not rapists, are hardly the choir boys some would suggest, and as the media has all but insisted they are since the charges were dropped. This team consists of a bunch of men who view women as sex objects to be ogled and used for their sexual titillation. They drink to excess underage, in violation of the law and the Duke student conduct code. At least some of them called the women “niggers” when they left the house that evening, according to all accounts, and denied by no one. And one of them, within two hours of the party that night, sent a violent e-mail in which he fantasized about raping and murdering women in his dorm room. These are not the actions of upstanding young men, who should be seen as bearing no responsibility for the drama into which they were thrown this past year. If we demand that Nifong and the accuser, Crystal Mangum, take responsibility for their actions (as they should), then so too must we expect some responsibility to be taken by these men, whose names and character would never have been sullied had they been content to just have a regular keg party that night, without strippers. Had they viewed women as their equals, and not as beings put on Earth to entertain them sexually, they would have gotten to play lacrosse last year, and no one would have ever wondered, even for a second, about whether or not they were rapists.

And please note, I bring the issue of the men’s culpability up, not simply as a way to bash Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans. Indeed, all of us who are men need to demand more from ourselves. After all, it is the rare heterosexual man who hasn’t indulged and projected some objectifying fantasy onto the flesh of women, either through pornography, or at some strip club, or during some testosterone-soaked bachelor party.

In other words, there are no angels in this tragedy, and no unique devils either. The lacrosse players are no better, and sadly not much worse than most of us who are men. The D.A. is every bit as voracious and political as every D.A. in the country who regularly panders to the public’s desire for toughness. And the accuser is not much different from anyone else with a lot of problems, who in a moment of weakness and intoxication does something stupid, even tragic, and then finds it difficult to extricate herself from the mess she’s made. Only our ability to see ourselves in the shoes of each of these characters, and to see how easily we could be them, any of them, given the right set of circumstances, will allow us to minimize the likelihood of such things happening in the future. If, on the other hand, we make Mangum into a pariah, while letting the boys get away with their push for public beatification, we will miss the lessons of this case, which are principally this: we must all be responsible for the things we do, and for the things we put out there in the world; and at the end of the day, we all have a lot of issues to work on, with regard to our criminal justice system, and our own tendencies to presume the guilt of criminal suspects.

And one more thing: despite the facts in this case, let us above all else remember that rape is a real, and all-too-frequent crime in this society, and that for every false accusation there are literally hundreds of tragically real ones. It should be our goal to stand strong against that culture of sexual abuse, and never allow a case like that at Duke to lessen our willingness to listen to those women who have been real victims, and survivors of such horrors.


Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz, “Whites Stereotypes of Blacks: Sources and Political Consequences,” in Perceptions and Prejudice: Race and Politics in the United States, ed. Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley (New Haven: Yale University, 1998), 90.

Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley, “Public Perceptions of Race and Crime: The Role of Stereotypes,” American Journal of Political Science, 41 (2), 1997: 375-401.

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