She was black, they were mostly white, and race and sex were in the air.
But whatever actually happened the night of March 13 at Duke University -- the reported rape and its surrounding details are hotly disputed -- it appears at least that the disturbing historic script of the sexual abuse of black women was playing out inside that lacrosse team house party.
Two black women performed an exotic dance. The white men in their audience shouted racial epithets, one of the women has said. Things got rough. Someone in the crowd held a broomstick aloft and shouted “I’m gonna shove this up you,” the other woman told police when she reported being raped. As the women fled the house, a neighbor reportedly heard one of the men shout, “Thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt.”
In the sordid but contested details of the case, African American women have heard echoes of a history of some white men sexually abusing black women -- and a stereotype of black women as hypersexual beings and thus fair game.
The mainstream media have largely tiptoed around the brutal truth that has been discussed among black women in private conversations, in the blogosphere and on college campuses. It is that the Duke case is in some ways reminiscent of a black woman’s vulnerability to a white man during the days of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, when sex was used as a tool of racial domination.
It was the kind of predatory behavior that found its way into modern culture in the old Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar.” And the stereotype of black women as highly sexed, like the lascivious Jezebel from slavery days, is a recurring image in music videos today.
Racial history still touches a deep and tender nerve. You can hear the bitterness in the way even a prim older woman discusses the Duke case.
“I think there’s a tendency to downgrade black women and to discount the fact that, no matter what they are there to do, they are not just animals to be used,” says Dorothy Height, 94, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women.
“Whatever she did, she was not there as a prostitute,” Height says in the dancer’s defense.
Yet that is how she has been portrayed.
On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh called the dancers in the Duke case two “hos.” On his TV show, Tucker Carlson called the alleged rape victim a “crypto-hooker.”
Julianne Malveaux, an economist, author and commentator, says she was outraged by the ugly characterizations. For her, the woman’s medical reports tell the story.
A physician and a forensic nurse examined the woman at the Duke University Hospital emergency room after the party and found “signs, symptoms and injuries consistent with being raped and sexually assaulted vaginally and anally,” a court document says.
“Whatever else happened, this woman has been violated somehow,” Malveaux says. “Is there no sympathy?”
The case has coincided with other high-profile swipes taken at black women. There was the case of Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and the radio talk-show host Neal Boortz, who called her a “ghetto slut” because he didn’t like her new hairdo.
Then there’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and radio host David Lenihan, who called her a “coon.” (He later said he was discussing her prospects at the NFL and ran the words together when he tried to say “coup” and “NFL.” It came out as “coon.” Twice. The fallout cost him his job.)
“African American women are not systematically valued in our society,” Malveaux says. So the alleged Duke victim is getting “no benefit of any doubt.”
Race is a subtext, at Duke, in the battle that is what women’s rights advocates describe as a routine and punishing part of most high-profile rape cases: the tug of war over the victim’s image and credibility.
Though the woman in the Duke case is a psychology major at North Carolina Central University, a Navy veteran and a mother of two, those facts have been obscured by the troubling details that have emerged about her life. She had been arrested for drunken driving after a police chase. She had reported a rape in the past; no one was prosecuted. Implying instability, defense attorneys reportedly have sought records on any mental problems she may have had. And they have called her a liar.
It is the classic “nuts and sluts” defense, says Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women and a former prosecutor.
“It reminds me to some extent of the William Kennedy Smith case, where there was a very organized effort to cast doubt on the victim,” says Susan Estrich, a law professor at USC and a rape victim. Smith was acquitted in 1991 after a judge’s ruling that neither his sexual history nor the alleged victim’s could be aired in open court.
Not spared in the game of image-battering, the lacrosse players have been portrayed by some as privileged, racist brutes prone to binge drinking, who preyed upon a troubled and struggling young woman.
David Forker Evans, 23, of Bethesda, Md., was charged May 15 in the case and said that neither he nor his co-defendants, Reade Seligmann, 20, and Collin Finnerty, 19, were guilty. The defense contends there was no sex, that the women performed their dance, then stopped when things got verbally rough.
The accuser has not come forward publicly herself.
At a news conference given by one of the defendant’s attorneys in Durham, community activist Victoria Peterson raised a question she has heard privately: Did the partyers specifically request black dancers that night? Peterson’s question was ignored.
“White men have always been fascinated with black women over the years. That’s nothing new,” says Peterson, who launched Durham Citizens Against Rape and Sexual Abuse in response to this case.
With outlets such as BET and others portraying African American women as highly sexed, “young white boys, they want to touch, they want to see,” Peterson says.
But Kim Roberts, the second dancer at the party, told the News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh that the lacrosse players told her they requested a Latina dancer and a white one. Because of her mixed Asian and African American heritage, she said, they assumed she was the Latina. So when the second woman showed up, were the men annoyed that she was black? Were they angered? Roberts did not say.
It’s yet another of the case’s puzzles.