Race, image front and center in Duke story

Until last month I hardly thought about Duke University's lacrosse team, except as whompin' fodder for my beloved Johns Hopkins University lacrosse team.

Then came the revelations about the mid-March party at a house three of the Duke players rented. There was booze involved. And underage drinking. And two women who, since they've been euphemistically referred to as "exotic dancers," we can assume were scantily clad performers from the school of rump shaking.


Then came the rape allegations. One of the women, a student at North Carolina Central University, said three of the players dragged her into a bathroom and beat, choked and raped her.

One Duke player was suspended from the university after sending an e-mail in which he said he'd like to kill and skin strippers. After that we got the results of DNA tests done on 46 players, which their defense lawyers say prove that no players were involved. Then we learned that a police officer for Durham, N.C. - the location of both Duke and North Carolina Central - said the woman was passed out drunk in a car on the night of the alleged rape. We also learned she was once charged with trying to run over a cop while driving a stolen car.


Oh, the story just keeps getting better and better.

The kicker may have come last week, when some folks of an ad hoc - and no doubt hastily formed - organization called the Committee for Fairness to Duke Families hired lawyer Bob Bennett to act as their spokesman. Bennett was former President Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Jones' sexual harassment case.

Great PR move, folks.

"It is unfortunate that members of the Duke community, players and families are being judged before all the facts are in," Bennett said, according to several news stories. "A lot of innocent young people and the families are being hurt and, unfortunately, this situation is being abused by people with separate agendas. It is grossly unfair, and cool heads must prevail."

Hold on there a second, lawyer guy. Let's not rush into making Duke's lacrosse players victims just yet. They may or may not have been unfairly accused of rape. But it's hard for me to feel their pain.

The investigation into the alleged rape is continuing. No one has been charged. Not one Duke player has had to cool his heels in Durham's city jail while awaiting a bail hearing. That's a better deal than three young men got in an incident at Mount Hebron High School in Howard County two years ago.

A review of that case may prove instructive. Three Mount Hebron boys, ages 18, 16 and 15 at the time, were charged with rape. A girl said one of them held her wrists, another watched at a restroom door and the third forced himself on her sexually. The three were charged as adults and denied bail.

The girl's story soon unraveled. She later admitted the sex was consensual. The girl was white. The three boys she accused were black. That's a complete flip-flop of the situation in Durham.


The "exotic dancer" is black. The three men she accused are white. Many folks - of all races - might ask if a double standard isn't at work in Durham. If three black football players at North Carolina Central had been accused of raping a white "exotic dancer," would local officials have waited until the results of DNA tests before charging anyone?

It's a good question, but the wrong one for the incident in Durham. A more appropriate one might be why a lacrosse team of 46 white players and one black one ended up with two black strippers dancing at a party. I don't know much about Durham, having only driven through there twice on trips to Atlanta. But I'm sure there are white strippers in the town.

These guys chose two black women. But before black folks start talking about how, at the very least, Duke lacrosse players obviously don't hold black women in very high esteem, we'd better ask ourselves where they got that notion. Could it have been from those black rap artists who feature black "exotic dancers" in their videos doing the same thing those two black women in Durham were probably doing at the lacrosse team's party?

Respect for black women should start at home. Before we get angry at Duke lacrosse players who may only be guilty of excessive boozing and ogling, we should call into account Jay-Z and Ludacris and 50 Cent and fill-in-name-of-black-male-rapper-here for how black women are portrayed in their videos.

Karrine Steffans, author of Confessions of a Video Vixen, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show last week. Steffans used to appear in those videos before, she says, she grew weary of being a sex object.

"The world sees [these videos]," Winfrey said to Steffans, "and the world thinks that this is who we are, particularly as black women."


"Especially as black women," Steffans agreed.

If it transpires that Duke's lacrosse players overindulged in one too many of those videos and bought into the stereotype of black women as what Winfrey called "video hos," then we'll know exactly where else to point the finger of blame.