Social Tensions Surface with Duke Rape Allegations

Durham, N.C., is focused on rape allegations against members of the Duke University lacrosse team. The case has brought racial and class tensions to the forefront in the state's fourth-largest city.

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A criminal investigation has exposed divisions of race and class in the city of Durham, North Carolina.

Two white Lacrosse players from Duke University face charges of raping a black woman who worked as a stripper. This case has started a national debate, and NPR's Juan Williams sampled the debate within Durham itself.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Durham is easy to stereotype as racially divided. Roughly half of the city is black, roughly half is white. The poverty rate is slightly above the national average, and a disproportionate share of the poor are black.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mayor Bill Bell, who came to Durham in 1968, one week before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., insists that what's happening to the city now is exactly that--stereotyping.

Mayor BILL BELL (Mayor of Durham, North Carolina): When you get that--get the national media that comes in and is looking primarily for soundbites, you've got a story of rape and race. And then you unfavorably compare Durham as being a black town, a gritty town, economically struggling with crimes. And this big racial divide that this is creating doesn't give a fair, in my opinion, representation of the city.

WILLIAMS: Fair or not, the city is divided. Duke University sprawls across the northwest corner of Durham. A wall three feet high made of stone separates the east campus from the neighborhood. On North Buchanan Boulevard, directly across for the wall, one house stands apart from the large brick homes. It's a modest house with white siding, black shutters, Venetian blinds dangling off-kilter in a front window.

Three members of the Duke lacrosse team live in this house. The team held a party here on March 13th, and hired two strippers. One of the women says she was beaten and raped that night.

Mr. JAMES D. "BUTCH" WILLIAMS (Defense Attorney for Accused Lacrosse Player): As I understand the facts, no one put their hands on that young lady.

WILLIAMS: James D. "Butch" Williams is a lawyer for the defense. His version of events could hardly be more different than the one told by backers of the accuser.

Cash Michaels is a writer and community activist who has spoken with the woman's family.

Mr. CASH MICHAELS (Writer; Activist): Her jaw was swollen. She clearly wasn't moving properly and she had a problem with her leg.

WILLIAMS: Exactly what happened that night is known only to the people who were there. There is physical evidence. DNA tests, time-stamped photos, a medical exam of the alleged victim. The court will try to sort through it all.

(Soundbite of rain falling)

Last week, dozens of reporters crowded the steps of the Durham County Courthouse. Rain poured down and TV crews squeezed under makeshift tents to keep dry. They were waiting to find out whether any of the Duke Lacrosse players would be indicted. But by the time a grand jury did indict two Duke sophomores, opinions in Durham had already been formed.

Ms. SERINA SEBRING(ph): The biggest shift I saw happened after the DNA results came out.

WILLIAMS: That's Duke graduate student Serina Sebring, who lives in the neighborhood where the party took place and moderates a community listserv about the case.

She's referring to an initial DNA test that found no physical link between 46 of the lacrosse players and the accuser. The results exposed the divisions throughout Durham. At Duke, Sebring says, many wondered if they had rushed to judge the players.

Ms. SEBRING: I've heard many more voices saying, obviously this was false to begin with, and that people needed to wait and see. There was a witch-hunt mentality or a lynch mob mentality.

WILLIAMS: For others, the lack of a DNA match proved nothing.

Community activist Cash Michaels.

Mr. MICHAELS: Black folks were saying, okay, there's a problem here. But we know from that forensic exam at the hospital that, indeed, she was attacked, and that, no matter what the DNA says, we know something happened to her.

WILLIAMS: To many in the black community, the handling of the DNA test was just more proof that there are two standards of justice. Cash Michaels.

Mr. MICHAELS: If the alleged suspects were a black team, and the victim was white, that they would have been rounded up, arrested, and they would have been waiting in jail for their DNA results.

WILLIAMS: The credibility of Durham's criminal justice system could turn on the credibility of the accuser in this case. Who she is depends on who you ask.

Mr. JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN (Former Professor of Legal History, Duke University): I don't want to get into that question, how much you ask for if you're going to get out there and be a stripper, you know?

WILLIAMS: John Hope Franklin is a former Duke professor and a long-time resident of Durham.

Mr. FRANKLIN: The case gets to be a little weak when you're talking about someone who's engaged in that kind of profession.

WILLIAMS: Cash Michaels is one of the many who see her differently.

Mr. MICHAELS: She is a woman who is about her children, ages five and seven. She's about bettering herself. She's a sophomore at North Carolina Central University, so that resonates with black people because we understand struggle, particularly with single mothers.

While everyone says, of course, we wouldn't want my daughter doing that, we understand this sister's struggle; being a stripper is not what she was about. That was not her profession. Her profession was being a mother; it was being a student.

WILLIAMS: At North Carolina Central University, the mostly black school across town, this story is what everyone's talking about in class and around campus. The accuser goes to school here.

Ms. SHAUNTISTE DUVANCE(ph) (Senior, North Carolina Central University): People want to support her because, you know, she's a black female and they want to see justice done.

WILLIAMS: Senior Shauntiste Duvance sat with a group of students who had gathered at the office of the student newspaper.

Ms. DUVANCE: Nobody knows for a fact if she's telling the truth or if she's lying, but either way, people are like, we want to support her regardless of if she's telling the truth or not.

WILLIAMS: Here's junior, Jerelle Dawson(ph).

Mr. JERELLE DAWSON (Junior, North Carolina Central University): It's kind of like a black against white thing, and then, just taking our own side. Like, kind of, you protect your family members, you're not, don't want to see what's happening on the other side. You just want to keep that family kind of tight.

WILLIAMS: This is the view from North Carolina Central, tucked in the south central corner of Durham. Students at Central don't need to compare their plain, concrete buildings to the ornate Gothic architecture at Duke. Senior, Anissa Holmes(ph).

Ms. ANISSA HOLMES (Senior, North Carolina Central University): The difference between NCC versus Duke is white versus black. And wealthy versus, I don't want to say poor, because, you know.

WILLIAMS: But the fact is the median income in Durham is $40,000 a year. That's less than one year's tuition to Duke.

Former Duke professor John Hope Franklin says that seems to matter more now.

Mr. FRANKLIN: There are friends of mine here in Durham who have told me, since this incident, that they have hated Duke. They always felt that Duke was lording it over the rest of the community, when here is Duke racing around trying to do this and that and the other to improve its relationship with the community, and there are people standing out and saying, I hate you. There's nothing you can do to keep me from hating you.

WILLIAMS: Yet there's still love for Durham.

Reverend Melvin Whitley is associate pastor at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, in Durham. He tells this story.

Shortly after the alleged rape, more than a dozen black gang members from throughout the city asked to meet with him.

Reverend MELVIN WHITLEY (Associate Pastor at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, in Durham): They just wanted to hurt somebody. That wouldn't have solved anything. Of course, as soon as I asked them, then how will Durham look in the eyes of the world if you were to do that? There's such a love for this city, and you have to live here for a while to understand it.

WILLIAMS: John Hope Franklin has lived here awhile, more than two decades. He understands why the Duke case has divided the community the way it has.

Mr. FRANKLIN: They've been through this or something like it so long, so many times. There are so many miscarriages of justice in the black-white relationship. There's so much pent up emotional investment in this. I hope that after 90 years I'm not siding with anybody because they happen to be of one race or the other. I simply could not bring myself to do that.

WILLIAMS: The trouble is, other people can.

Juan Williams, NPR News.

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