The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary April 21, 2006


Mob Vengeance and Double-Standard at Duke?

As a teacher and concerned citizen, I am deeply concerned with the actions of key civic and educational leaders, including District Attorney Mike Nifong and Duke President Brodhead, with regards to the recent rape allegations surrounding the Duke Lacrosse Team. We are supposedly a nation of laws that values due process and rights for the accused, including the principle that individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, we have a sordid history of racism in many local communities, where members of certain groups (e.g. black males, Hispanic immigrants) were stereotyped as the worst sorts of criminals and the public was whipped into mob hysteria demanding instant justice.

I like to think that we have learned from our painful history and to treat the accused as individuals, not as members of any problematic group. Recent rape allegations against young African-American athletes, such as the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, were met with a degree of restraint from the mainstream media, prosecutors and sports organizations. Mr. Bryant continued playing, even after formal charges and during the actual trial and the team president and coach stood by him. The local prosecutor did not harp on the fact that the accused was upper-class, black and an outsider, while the accuser (alleged victim) was white and came from a respectable, middle-class local family. Before bringing formal charges, the prosecutor did not make “calmly defiant” speeches at excited community forums. The responsible members of the media did not give voice to white nationalist activists, who would use the case to further their political agendas.

Unfortunately, the painful lessons learned from history, about group stereotypes, seem to have been swept away in the current controversy. When the accused turn out to be white males, some from upper-class backgrounds, it becomes politically correct to abandon all restraints. The media has given voice to all sorts of activists, who would use the case to harp on the evils of white male privileges and who have whipped up public fear and hysteria. One would hope that responsible government and educational leaders would do their best to restrain public opinion, to ensure that the accused receive due process. Quite the opposite: the District Attorney has promised continuing investigation and garnered enthusiastic applause from public forums. At Duke, the coach has resigned, the season has been cancelled, and the president has announced an extensive investigation of the athletes.

One could ask what would have occurred if the races and situations of the accused and accuser were reversed — if a group of black athletes at North Carolina Central University were accused of gang-raping a white female student from Duke. Would sociology professors trot out statistics that black men are several times more likely to commit interracial rape than white men? Would the media give voice to these and other activists, with personal and political axes to grind? Would the university president force the resignation of the coach, suspend the team and mandate sensitivity training to all athletes? Would he condone protesters with placards holding the pictures of all the black athletes? Finally, wouldn’t these actions be construed as implying guilt, inflaming public opinion and potentially prejudicing the jury pool?

The presidents of Duke and other colleges certainly have the right and obligation to foster honorable conduct on the part of student-athletes. However, they need to exercise a certain caution to convey impartiality and to not imply guilt on any one individual or group. The timing and tone of the president’s actions, in the middle of public frenzy and a heated legal process, gives the impression of less than impartiality. He has lent credence to public accusations that will likely stigmatize the lacrosse student-athletes for life.

We are a diverse, multiethnic nation and becoming increasingly so. In order to make our diversity work, we have to reinforce our commitment to certain bedrock, democratic principles, including that of equal justice and individual rights. Our educational, civic and political elites, what Thomas Jefferson calls the “natural aristocracy,” have the opportunity and obligation to restrain popular passions and to protect the rights of unpopular individuals and groups. When our leaders forsake such obligations in the name of political correctness or some other ideology, our nation becomes increasingly divided, fearful of interracial contact and vulnerable to demagogues of all stripes. Working-class minorities then, upper-class white males today, perhaps Korean merchants tomorrow: who will be the next group to be the object of righteous mob vengeance? To quote the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “Sometimes the worst evil is done by good people who do not know that they are not good.”

–Joseph Yi
Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics


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