Blue (-Eyed) Devils?

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  April 26, 2006

Last summer’s Hurricane Katrina disaster also reinforced the idea of a country divided, leaving television viewers gasping at the sight of a black underclass without the wherewithal to escape, trapped in a drowning city that government forgot.

The compelling core class-and-race issue in the Duke situation is summed up by MSNBC’s Rita Cosby, whose prime-time program has covered the story extensively.

“You’ve got this African-American woman who comes from this poor [background], and you’ve got affluent white young men and the contrast between the two,” she tells the Phoenix. “In many ways, this story is a little bit of David and Goliath.”

Nowhere was the dichotomy clearer than in a pair of April 18 stories from Duke’s hometown paper, the Herald-Sun of Durham, North Carolina. One described the shock of Duke classmates after learning of the arrests of Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, two “products of well-heeled families in toney New York City suburbs and exclusive prep schools.” The second story described the relief that the city’s “community leaders and NAACP activists” felt upon hearing of the arrests. One local minister expressed his belief that black suspects would have been arrested sooner than the white lacrosse players were.

A day later, more salt was poured on the cultural wounds. One of the suspects’ friends went on CNN to declare — with no apparent sign of humility — that Duke is “the number-five school in the country. We’re on a par with all the elite Ivy League universities. Every one of my peers is an awesome person, fantastic person, and has a lot of great attributes.”

On the same day, Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose participation in a controversy often defines it as a racial crisis, gave a Court TV Morning Radio interview in which he vowed to raise money for the accuser’s tuition. “Unfortunately, a growing number of young women around the country ... are exotic dancers ... stripping at night and paying tuition by day,” Jackson asserted.

In a plot twist sure to inflame passions, some commentators have mentioned the accuser in the same breath as Tawana Brawley, the African-American teen who triggered a media frenzy and racial showdown with her 1987 allegation — later thrown out by a grand jury — that she was raped by white law-enforcement officials.

The ‘no mas’ media defense
The media blitz in the Duke rape saga — which includes widely seen photos of the accuser at the party where the crime was alleged to have occurred — should conjure up memories of the Kobe Bryant case. In 2003, a young white woman accused the African-American basketball star of rape, but the power and class advantages belonged to the celebrity jock.

Bryant’s accuser found herself the subject of death threats; her name was circulated on the Internet; sexy photos of her showed up in a supermarket tabloid attached to headlines such as DID SHE REALLY SAY NO?; and she was the target of an aggressive defense intent on exposing her sexual history. Shaken by all that scrutiny, the woman ultimately opted not to pursue the criminal case against Bryant.

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What’s in a Name?

In a case as culturally loaded as this one, language is crucial in cementing public perceptions about the veracity and character of the accuser. Court TV anchor Catherine Crier says that one of the things that makes the “race” and “class” issues in this story so prominent is the question dogging the alleged victim: “Is she a wanton woman?”

Writing for Arianna Huffington’s blog, legal analyst Karen Russell raised the key issue of how the media should describe the woman: “Victim? Accuser? Single mom? Exotic dancer? Part-time student? Stripper?”

It sure seems to make a difference.

Weighing in from his side of the class divide, Rush Limbaugh told his dittoheads that the Duke athletes were accused of raping some “hos.” (He later called that terminology a “terrible slip of the tongue.”)

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