Rape, not race, should be focus of Duke story

April 23, 2006|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON -- And so we come again to the place where race and sex intersect.

It's an intersection we never seem to quite escape, one ever present in our news and our history, whether it be Kobe Bryant accused of rape or O. J. Simpson accused of murder or back through antiquity to a black woman in a slave cabin, knees pressed together at the sound of her door opening at midnight and the white man who owns her stepping through, unwelcome.

This time, it's Duke University, where members of the lacrosse team are accused of raping a stripper hired to perform at a team party.

Blacks are watching the case with keen interest amid accusations that the district attorney, campaigning for re-election, initially dragged his feet because the accuser was black and the accused were white kids at an elite school in the South.

And if that seems overwrought, imagine the response if the woman were white and reported being raped by three black members of the basketball team. You'd have to call out the National Guard.

Because race and sex mix like dynamite and fire.

But the thing I keep coming back to is this: If some woman reported being raped by a group of men of the same race, we wouldn't even be having this discussion. That would "only" be rape and, as such, it wouldn't qualify as national news, much less news with the potential to explode.

And yet. Did you know that 300,000 women are raped each year in this country? Did you know that one woman in six can expect to be raped, or to face an attempted rape, in her lifetime? This, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Which makes you marvel that it takes race to make this a story.

I don't mean to minimize the importance of race and, for that matter, class to what allegedly happened here. If - and right now it's only an if - a black woman was indeed raped by white men at an elite private school, the echoes of white privilege, white entitlement and white brutality will be too loud to ignore.

My point, though, is that there are other issues here, too.

The unidentified alleged victim is a 27-year-old single mother working her way through school by undressing for men. Since the news broke, there have been whispers of her supposed drunkenness on the night of the alleged assault and reports about her reputedly troubled past. Both of which come uncomfortably close to slandering the victim.

Then there's the e-mail sent from the account of one of the lacrosse players that told of a plan to "have some strippers over" and then kill them and "cut their skin off."

Doug Clark, a columnist for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., has expressed sympathy for the writer of that note, saying he was young and dumb and indulging in "the sort of crude talk teenage boys sometimes exchange when they're sure no adults are listening."

I disagree. Healthy minds of whatever age don't harbor such fantasies. More to the point, woman-hating is hardly confined to some college kid's e-mail. Rather, that note reflects sentiments that have seeped like sewage into our culture, showing up in that video game where you can kill prostitutes and rob them, in that music video where a credit card is swiped through a woman's backside, in the defamation and death threats that greeted the young woman who accused Kobe Bryant of raping her.

So it's all well and good to make this a story about sex and race or class.

But I believe it's about more than that. And I suspect that one in six women would agree.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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