The Danger of Screaming Race in Rape

From the start, the Duke rape case had the classic earmark of a case that could fall apart at any time. That grim possibility sped closer to reality with the bombshell admission on CBS's "60 Minutes" by a friend of the black female student who claimed rape by a pack of white Duke University Lacrosse players that the rape may not have happened. The three players indicted in the case and their attorney quickly pounced on the revelation and loudly screamed that they were innocent and demanded that the charges be dropped. If they are, and that likelihood is stronger than ever, it won't undo the damage done.

The Duke case was more than a criminal case. The accused white assailants were young white primadonna athletes, and the alleged victim was a black woman who made money on the side by moonlighting as a stripper. That blended the tantalizing and very polarizing elements of race and rape. The battle lines quickly formed, with black and women's groups on one side, and a slew of coaches, sports jocks, and a doubting public on the other.

When DNA tests failed to link the alleged assailants to the crime that should have raised red flags. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and NAACP President Bruce Gordon should've cautioned blacks against a rush to judgment to condemn the accused without all the facts. They didn't. Their great fear is that if they rebuke blacks that abuse race to grab headlines that would be tantamount to race treason. That's a false fear. If anything, a swift and firm denunciation of the race card in rape cases would enhance the credibility of black leaders. It would show that they are willing to make the tough call and criticize other blacks when they justly deserve criticism. Women's groups should have taken the same wait and see approach to the case.

They know that a bogus charge of rape in an impassioned racially charged case could do great damage to their relentless battle to get the police, courts and the media to treat rape as a deadly crime. They didn't urge caution either. In part that's understandable. In years past, far too many authorities routinely laughed off, victim blamed, or simply turned a blind eye to the cry of rape, the only exception to that was when a white woman fingerpoints a black man as the assailant. During that time, much of the media and the courts magnified and sensationalized crimes by black men against white women while white men that victimized black women waltzed away scot free.

But that was hardly true in the Duke case. Prosecutors took the woman's accusation seriously and promised women's groups and black leaders that they'd aggressively prosecute the athletes. If they had solid evidence they should have. The woman's word alone hardly qualified as solid evidence. Their hasty pledge may come back to haunt those that want to see justice in rape cases.

The public recant leaves black rape victims wide open to the charge that they will falsely shout rape to cover up their sexual misdeeds. That could make police more hesitant to make arrests and prosecutors even more gun shy about vigorously prosecuting rape cases. It could make black leaders more reluctant to speak out against sexual abuses. That puts women, particularly black women, at greater risk from sexual attack. According to the Bureau of Justice's 1999 National Crime Victimization Survey, one in five women 18 and older are raped. Black women were far more likely than a white woman to be raped or sexually assaulted and women with lower incomes had higher sexual assault rapes than higher income women.

There are no winners in the Duke case. The dubious allegations of rape cost the Lacrosse head coach his job. It wrecked the season for the team. It sullied the reputation of the players who appear to have been falsely accused. It inflamed racial tensions in Durham, North Carolina. It pitted black and white students against each other on the campus. It gave legions of talking head commentators fresh ammunition to blast blacks as eternal whiners about race, ever ready to circle the wagons and lambast whites for real or imagined racial misconduct. It reinforced the ancient stereotype that black women are sexually loose, and if they are the victim of sexual attack, that they bring it on themselves by their profligate behavior.

That's a steep price to pay for a rape that perhaps was not a rape. The price could be even steeper if a prosecutor anywhere in a future rape case has a moment's hesitation in prosecuting the perpetrator, no matter what the color of the victim.

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