The Fine Line between Social Activism and Rumor Mongering

DUKE (NON) RAPE UPDATE: Lots of new developments at K.C. Johnson’s blog….

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Over the last couple of weeks I have been reading some of the background material on the  Duke Rape case. The dropping of the rape charge coincided with questions about how far I was willing to go with social activism. I was particularly interested in with the level of involvement by the faculty and their path toward healing on this divisive issue. From one point of view this rape case described race relations at Duke as a festering wound that white students do not see. The quote best describes this position comes from the original Group of 88 statement.

“They don’t see race. They just don’t see it.”

In my investigation I found that Duke has set up a website to coordinate news release on the incident. It is interesting to note that the Group of 88 statement was removed from the original Duke website and is not available on this new site either. It is only available from the Google cache. The Duke site has a nice collection of documents and links that try to explain how Duke is dealing with the problems. I have not reviewed all of the documents and links  but the selection appears to be impartial. 

Although it is debatable how bad race relations were before the incident, they are definitely worse now. I was disappointed to not find many signs of healing on Duke’s website. It would be nice to see some signs of healing and progress but I doubt black and white students discuss the problem. The problem is far more complex now. White students who did not see race problems before the incident, have been given a whole new understanding of bigotry. From the evidence that has been released to public scrutiny there are two groups of victims, the woman and the lacrosse players. It is fascinating how quickly the black students and faculty gave up on “due process” and proceeded to presume the guilt of the lacrosse players. By all accounts the district attorney’s actions were over zealous.  All of the legal procedures that were developed over the years primarily to help black defendants get a fair trial were ignored because the defendants had a different color skin. Black students and faculty should have experienced a strange sense of deja vu. The white students will see a different story. They will conclude that the black students and faculty are exhibiting the same form of bigotry they are complaining about and that a white student’s rights to a fair trial are less than if they were a black person.  These are uncomfortable subjects for students and faculty to discuss so I doubt they will.

In my opinion the actions by the faculty is the most regrettable part of this incident. I would have expected that the faculty would have shown more humility and realized that the preliminary findings by the district attorney were the equivalent of rumors. The faculty had the intellect, experience, and sensitivity to make the wise decision and set an example of wisdom for the students. They failed. They took the preliminary findings as fact and lead the university down a regrettable path. A little humility would have gone a long way to preventing this catastrophe to the prestige of the faculty and Duke University. Rick Martinez of the News & Observer recently wrote an article that encourages Duke to look at itself. Hopefully they will find healing in the process.

I have learned that there are quite a few pitfalls when dealing with race related social activism.  Like the Duke faculty I will inevitably know less facts about the big issues than I am comfortable with but I will be confronted with the desire to move forward to improve pressing social issues. Managing this mix of facts, rumors,  latent prejudices, and social change is a great challenge. I have learned that I can do more damage than good if I am not very careful with the words I choose to repeat. I hope that if I keep an eye on humility as I develop my recommendations, then the changes I advocate will show more wisdom. If we are lucky this wisdom will contribute to an improving situation. If the wisdom is not accepted, I hope that it will be accepted as my best effort to make things better and that no harm was intended.