Rape case sparks debate

April 28, 2006

The alleged rape of a black female student by white athletes at the elite Duke University has raised painful questions about race, sex and social inequality in US higher education.

As lawyers for the students assert that DNA tests prove that their clients are innocent, the scandal has crossed over into an examination of snap judgments and assumptions about white men - in particular athletes.

A grand jury last week indicted two white players from Duke's lacrosse team on charges related to the alleged kidnapping and gang rape of the African-American student. Collin Finnerty, from Long Island, New York, and Reade Seligmann, from New Jersey, both 20, were freed on $400,000 (£225,000) bail.

Duke president Richard Brodhead said: "This episode has touched off angers, fears, resentments and suspicions that range far beyond this immediate case. Compounding and intensifying issues of race and gender, they include concerns about the deep structures of inequality in our society - inequalities of wealth, privilege and opportunity, and the attitudes of superiority those inequalities breed."

These, Dr Brodhead added, "include concerns that, whether they intend to or not, universities such as Duke participate in this inequality and supply a home for a culture of privilege".

He announced a five-point plan to address the issues. It includes: an internal investigation of allegations of "racist language and a pattern of alcohol abuse and disorderly behaviour" in the men's lacrosse programme; an external investigation of the university administration's response to the rape allegations; an internal examination of student judicial processes and practices; and a "campus-culture initiative" to "evaluate and suggest improvements in the ways Duke educates students in the values of personal responsibility, consideration for others and mutual respect in the face of difference and disagreement".

The private university is in the southern city of Durham, North Carolina, which is 44 per cent black and is home to the predominantly black, public North Carolina Central University.

A -year-old student from North Carolina Central claims she was gang raped on March 13 by white men at a lacrosse team party, for which she had been hired to perform as a stripper.

The prosecutor said that medical evidence proved a crime had occurred, but attorneys for the players say other evidence proved that they did not commit it.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson said his organisation, the Rainbow/Push Coalition, would pay the female student's tuition, even if it were proved that she had not been raped, so that she no longer needed to work through school.

The men "are being judged before all the facts are in", said Bob Bennett, a Washington attorney who represented President Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and has been hired by the lacrosse team's supporters. "A lot of innocent young people and their families are being hurt, and unfortunately this situation is being abused by people with separate agendas."

The lacrosse coach has resigned and the remainder of the season has been cancelled. Racial tensions have escalated, and a debate has broken out about the way male university students treat women - especially black women.

Critics of the lacrosse team said that the athletes were held to lower standards of conduct, and that they often drank to excess and behaved badly without repercussions. This outcry intensified when, in the wake of the incident, a member of the team sent an e-mail saying he wanted to invite more strippers to his house and planned on "killing the bitches as soon as they walk in".

Supporters of the lacrosse team said Duke administrators caved in to community pressure by cancelling the team's season before anyone had been charged with a crime, and that political correctness has pushed others to jump to the conclusions that the white men must be in the wrong.

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