Political correctness in the dock

Why did so many leap to the conclusion that white lacrosse players at Duke University must have been guilty of gang-raping a black woman? This disturbing book reveals how political correctness led to a disastrous rush to judgement.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Books

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Until Proven Innocent, by Stuart Taylor Jr and KC Johnson, tells the story of the white Duke University lacrosse players who were falsely accused of raping a local black woman in Durham, North Carolina. Their riveting book reads like a legal thriller (in fact it comes with an endorsement from John Grisham on the cover). But more importantly, their detailed research and inquisitive analysis results in a work that holds a mirror up to American society and its institutions today. And the image it reflects back is not a pretty one.

The Duke lacrosse affair was one of the most talked-about and divisive topics in America over the past year. But even those who are familiar with the case will benefit from Taylor and Johnson’s careful reconstruction of events. It begins on the night of 13 March 2006 when the Duke lacrosse team captains hired a couple of strippers to perform at a team party held at their off-campus house. Two young black women arrived shortly before midnight to dance for the nearly all-white team, and very quickly it went very badly wrong. One of the strippers fell down, appearing to be drunk or on drugs, and the ‘entertainment’ ended after four minutes. Shortly afterwards, the two women left, but not before they exchanged angry words with the players, including trading a few racial taunts.

The impaired dancer, Crystal Mangum, would later that night claim that she was gang-raped. Ten days later, the Durham police announced that there was no doubt a brutal rape took place in the house, based on ‘really, really strong physical evidence’. District attorney Michael Nifong, who took over as investigation leader, said the entire team was a ‘bunch of hooligans’ and rapists. In this southern city with a large black population, Nifong whipped up passions by equating the alleged attack with cross burnings. Eventually, three players would be charged with rape.

After the allegations became public, all hell broke loose at Duke. Protesters paraded in front of the party house (now deserted), banging pots and pans and holding signs that read ‘TIME TO CONFESS’ and ‘CASTRATE’. A few days later ‘WANTED’ posters, with mugshots of all 46 team members, were pasted up around campus.

Radical faculty members did not hesitate to presume guilt, and emerged to denounce the players. Houston A Baker Jr, a professor of English and of African and Afro-American Studies, was particularly prominent in the media. In a public letter to the administration, Baker wrote that the team embodied ‘abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence and drunken white, male privilege loosed amongst us’. And in an email to the mother of a lacrosse player, Baker called her son and his teammates ‘farm animals’. A ‘Group of 88’ faculty signed a full-page advertisement in the campus paper that described Duke as a ‘social disaster’ for students who are ‘objects of racism and sexism’ and ‘see illuminated in this moment’s extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday’. The signers asserted without qualification that something ‘happened to this young woman [Mangum]’, and thanked protesters ‘for not waiting and for making yourselves heard’.

The Duke administration clearly distanced themselves from the team. University president Richard Broadhead said sexual assault has no place at Duke, stressed that the criminal allegations, if proved true, would lead to serious penalties, and took the unprecedented step of cancelling the lacrosse team’s season – all of which led onlookers to believe the players were guilty. Broadhead would later suspend the accused players, and appoint a ‘campus culture committee’ – largely consisting of the ‘Group of 88’ professors – to investigate racism and sexism at Duke.

The story quickly moved beyond Durham to the national stage. It became frontpage news for the New York Times and other national papers, as well as constant feed for cable TV trash-talk shows. In its details, news coverage generally followed DA Nifong’s statements uncritically. But most of the national media bathed the Duke affair in the light of a modern-day PC morality tale. On one side were white, privileged, racist, drunken, arrogant jocks at the ‘Harvard of the South’; lacrosse players in particular were from the upper classes and violent in nature (not unlike their description in Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons – set at ‘Dupont University’, which is a thinly-veiled disguise for Duke). On the other side was a poor African-American single mother working hard to advance through a local community college. The case was presented as personifying broader social problems of sex and race in the United States.

This set-piece outrage made for a compelling story. There was only one problem: it wasn’t true. Mangum, a woman with a history of psychological problems, changed her story many, many times. There were no bruises or other signs of attack, and DNA tests did not show any contact with the players. Digital evidence – photos, mobile call records, security cameras – corroborated the defence’s timeline and players’ alibis. Mangum’s dancing partner described her accusation as ‘a crock’.

Worse still, it was revealed that Nifong had bent the law badly in the process of trying to frame the defendants. He rigged the photo identification process, and Mangum never reliably identified the three accused players. He hid DNA test findings that showed that Mangum had sex with four men – none of them lacrosse players – before appearing at the house that night. When a Sudanese immigrant taxi-driver named Moezeldin Elmostafa emerged to provide an alibi for one of the defendants, Nifong threw him in jail and charged him with aiding a shoplifter two-and-a-half years earlier – a clear case of witness intimidation.

In January 2007, the Attorney General of North Carolina stepped in to take over the case. By April he dismissed all charges and declared the accused players innocent. Nifong was forced to resign from office and disbarred from practising law. The defendants were free, but only after more than a year in which their names were dragged through the mud.

Over the 13 months of this episode, many adjusted their opinions as the evidence emerged in the public arena. At Duke, university president Broadhead changed his tune over time, and eventually (in September 2007) apologised to the lacrosse players for not supporting them. But the radical professors were not in the least bit embarrassed. A group of them issued a ‘clarification’ letter to their original advert, rejecting all ‘public calls to the authors to retract the ad or apologise for it’ and claiming they were misinterpreted. The letter-writers implicitly blamed the Duke student body for an ‘atmosphere that allows sexism, racism and sexual violence to be so prevalent on campus’. The faculty were the real ‘victims’ – victims of ‘intimidation’ for their views.

Most of the media, over time, recognised that their morality tales weren’t supported by the facts. However, the New York Times held on to its pro-Nifong stance until the bitter end. Even as late as August 2006, when much of the case had fallen apart, the Times continued to bang on about the ‘tangled American opera of race, sex and privilege’ and tried to resurrect the case by taking as good coin a police sergeant’s notes cobbled together after the fact. Like the Duke faculty, the Times remained unapologetic: after the defendants were declared innocent, the paper’s ‘public editor’ concluded that its coverage was balanced, and any flaws were not the result of ideological bias (1).

So how did this all happen? Taylor and Johnson point the finger, in the first instance, at Nifong. The chief prosecutor didn’t go to such lengths because of a blind ideological commitment to assist rape victims. After all, as the authors point out, prior to this case he had declined to pursue a number of rape allegations. Rather, they argue, it was pure political opportunism. Specifically, by going for broke on the Duke case, Nifong sought to capture black votes in his race to be elected District Attorney. He deployed over-the-top rhetoric to whip up anger among blacks, playing upon existing tensions in the community. In the event, Nifong was able to gain the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other black organisations, and he received 95 per cent of the black votes (vs 20 to 25 per cent of the white votes) to win the election.

This explanation for Nifong’s motivation put forward by the authors seems plausible – but it is not as strongly supported as other parts of their story. In particular, Taylor and Johnson’s discussion of the black political actors is probably the most thinly-drawn part of the book.

While pointing out that Nifong’s failed attempt to stitch up the lacrosse players is the immediate explanation for the Duke fiasco, Taylor and Johnson do not stop there. This case might have remained a local story of he-said, she-said accusations, ‘town and gown’ tensions and political corruption. Indeed, as the authors highlight, there were many rape cases across the country that didn’t receive national attention. What elevated it to a national discussion – and led so many astray – was that it played into the main politically correct assumptions of today.

The usual PC suspects come in for damning criticism from Taylor and Johnson. They certainly cast the radical faculty members as villains of the piece, and show how these academics – more than a decade since the first emergence of PC – have become caricatures of themselves. And PC media-types are also lambasted. The authors quote a former Times writer: ‘You couldn’t invent a story so precisely tuned to the outrage frequency of the modern, metropolitan, bienpensant journalist.’

But, even if they perhaps dwell too much on the faculty and journos, one of the best aspects of Taylor and Johnson’s exhaustive account is that you cannot help but notice how widespread political correctness extends. It’s not simply a case of ‘PC gone mad’; PC is now the given etiquette that everyone has to work with. All the major cultural institutions now share basic PC assumptions.

One example is the Duke administration’s response to the rape case. As it came under scrutiny, the administration failed to defend the players’ basic rights to the presumption of innocence and due legal process. In the past, in the case of a student who may have really raped someone, the elite administrators might have protected ‘one of their own’, whom they saw as a future leader, and swept the case under the rug with a talk with the local police. That wasn’t good, of course. But today it is striking how the pendulum has swung the other way – the Duke administration was ready to throw the students to the wolves at the first sign of trouble. Why? Not, as some argue, because the business managers running universities are ‘terrified’ of radical faculty; rather, it’s because they share the same underlying assumptions. Even if they had a notion to stick up for the students, the condemnation from wider society would have been hard to withstand.

Another example of the pervasiveness of PC is how the responses to the Duke affair did not fit readily into old ‘left’ and ‘right’ categories. As Taylor (a moderate independent) and Johnson (a liberal Democrat) show, both liberal and conservative commentators joined in the rush to judge the lacrosse players. The radical faculty were now joined by Christian conservatives to campaign to outlaw drinking among students.

Indeed, a number of commentators on the right see the Duke case as an extreme example of left-wing PCers out of control. Yet they ought to look closer to home. As Taylor and Johnson note, one of the factors contributing to the overzealous pursuit of the Duke players has been an increase in prosecutorial power, and this movement has been led by conservatives (and joined, in the case of rape and harassment, by feminists) seeking to assert ‘victims’ rights’. Also, in the campus context, conservatives such as David Horowitz are now calling for affirmative action for under-represented Republicans on faculty staff.

Another positive feature of this book is how the authors bring the characters to life. Until Proven Innocent shows the lacrosse players as multi-dimensional characters, in contrast to their accusers who reduce them to stereotypes or embodiments of social trends. One of the worst aspects of the attacks on them was how they were dehumanised – ‘farm animals’, in the words of Houston Baker. The emphasis on the violent nature of men in PC ideology leads us to see the worst in people. In the past, black men were likely to be demonised (as in the Scottsboro case of the 1930s); today, as the Duke case shows, all are suspect.

As Taylor and Johnson have noted in recent interviews, they were prepared to defend the players as athlete-jerks who didn’t deserve to be railroaded, but discovered them to be ‘wonderful kids’. The authors don’t gloss over the mistakes the lacrosse players made, but they add a critical ingredient that has been sorely lacking – a sense of proportion. They don’t downplay the players’ reputation for drinking, but they make the simple point that all students drink and you can’t judge people solely on their partying habits.

If there is a redeeming feature of the Duke story, Taylor and Johnson find it in the response of the Duke students. Although some were against the players early on, many reserved judgment, and, as the facts emerged, campaigned for the accused students. Abandoned by adults in the administration and faculty, perhaps the students at Duke (and elsewhere) have learned that it is now up to them to get American society back on track.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case by Stuart Taylor Jr and KC Johnson is published by Thomas Dunne Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Revisiting The Times’s Coverage of the Duke Rape Case, Byron Calame, New York Times, 22 April 2007.

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