Framing the Duke case

Has the media ignored or overplayed the racial dynamics in the Duke case?

Published May 25, 2006 12:15PM (EDT)

Unlike some, I have no interest in speculating on whether the lacrosse players accused in the Duke rape case are guilty; leave that to the courts. The media circus surrounding the case is another story. In yesterday's Washington Post, Lynne Duke addresses what has struck many as a widespread resurgence of stereotypes of black women. Piled on top of the usual indictments of a rape accuser's character have been stereotypes of black women as hypersexual and the property of white men, Duke argues.

Yet, both parties have been dragged into this embarrassing parade of stereotypes. The accuser is, more often than not, identified as a stripper first; the accused are identified as affluent Duke athletes. "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," Duke writes. Important, too, is that the accused parties' characters have not been left unscathed: "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," says Duke. It might not be fair to speculate here on the guilt of the lacrosse players, but the media's role in framing the case is fair game.

Duke argues that "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." The case, she says, is "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." I'm not convinced that the media has tiptoed around the issue so much as it has broadcast this as the paradigm of this case. Continually, race and class have been underscored in an uneasy, self-conscious manner, but little has come of it. More than anything, it seems a self-congratulatory exercise: "See, we mentioned the unmentionable, now will it go away?" It hasn't and it won't, at least not while we continue to defer to convenient stereotypes.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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