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Social Studies

Ball of Confusion

By Vincent Williams | Posted 4/19/2006

I actually wanted to write about the alleged Duke University lacrosse team rape two weeks ago. A 27-year-old African-American stripper, college student, and mother of two alleges that she was gang raped and beaten at a March 13 party in Durham, N.C., where she performed for Duke’s lacrosse team. With its perfect-storm collusion and collision of race, gender, class, power, and privilege, this type of story is one in which commentators, social critics, and talking heads can find plenty of rhetorical grist for all types of writerly mills. You could almost call it O.J.-esque. Of course, I wanted to join in, but something told me to just wait and, maybe, things would be clearer by my next deadline. Yeah. That was a good plan.

Since then, the story has become even murkier. There are allegations that this isn’t the first time the lacrosse team has been involved in criminal activity. Not to be outdone, apparently, the alleged victim also has a criminal record. A poorly written e-mail from sophomore player Ryan McFadyen has surfaced, and while it is full of some disturbing, hateful language that vividly demonstrates his attitude toward the woman in question—and his lack of even an elementary-school-level of syntactic and linguistic mastery shows that, perhaps, those stereotypically dumb basketball players aren’t the only student athletes getting shuffled through high school—it doesn’t really constitute a smoking gun. Finally, the initial DNA findings show no connection to any of the tested lacrosse team players. It’s the final piece of news that has really taken off in the past few days as certain segments of the commentating community have already begun to use the name “Tawana Brawley” to discuss the case.

It’s such a chaotic situation that everyone who has written about those issues and how they apply to Duke are pretty much right on target. Although, I do have to chuckle every time I read a pundit wonder how much hip-hop had to do with forming the young white men’s opinion about black women. Oh yeah, prior to 1979, the racist patriarchal culture of America just loved the sistas! Before Grandmaster Flash touched a turntable, rich white men and poor black women enjoyed a partnership that was renowned for its balance, purity, and mutual respect. Damn you, Kool Herc and your legacy of misogyny! C’mon now—I’m all for pinning blame for the world’s ills on Dem Franchize Boyz, but let’s keep things in perspective. This is a story as old as America.

That’s the sad thing about the whole situation and the way we’re all dealing with it. “Poor black woman says she was assaulted by privileged white men. Community wrings hands.” This could have happened in 1986, 1946, or 1896. There’s just a sense that everyone is going through the motions, because we’ve all seen this before and, racially, the dialogue and interaction hasn’t changed since, arguably, the early ‘70s. People already believe whatever it is they’re going to believe about this case because we’ve all seen it before.

That’s why the most frustrating aspect of all of it is that the one story I’m dying to hear hasn’t been told. I want to hear from Devon Sherwood. Sherwood is a freshman goalie on the Blue Devils’ lacrosse team. He’s also the only black member of the team. It’s only been in the past few days that his parents have made public statements. Like the rest of the team, he’s been silent about that night. Quite honestly, I don’t really want to hear anything the others have to say because, again, we’ve all heard it before. They’re nice boys (always “boys” when they’re in trouble, never “men”), they get a little rambunctious, they’re high-spirited, they don’t mean any harm—y’know, all the phraseology that is used to justify the boorish, and sometimes criminal, behavior of young men who come from power and money.

But Sherwood doesn’t fit that profile. His blackness makes him an entirely new concept in these depressingly old proceedings. I find something fascinating and darkly ironic about the fact that, for one of the few times since Sept. 12, 2001, racial profiling has worked in a black man’s favor, and he’s the only one who everyone agrees is innocent. We’ve certainly seen black athletes before, but Sherwood plays lacrosse, a sport that, Jim Brown aside, isn’t really known for its black players. How is life for him on the team? What has been the reaction from people, both black and white, since the incident? How involved was he with the black community at Duke? Is that question inherently racist? Did he feel any allegiance to the strippers because they were black? Should he have? If one of his teammates actually did say the overheard “Thank your grandpa for my cotton shirt,” should he have been offended? As far as I’m concerned, these are new questions that can lead to new conversations that we need to be having since, obviously, the old ones aren’t going anywhere.

In 1903, W.E.B. Dubois said, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” and he was, of course, right. It was so much of a problem that it has spilled over into the 21st. But I think we need to stop going around in circles and come up with something else, because, as this Duke case demonstrates, issues of black and white are rarely just black and white.

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