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by Mark Weisenmiller

University gave alumni a flyer entitled "Dealing with News Media at Reunion"

(IPS) DURHAM -- The case of two Duke University men's lacrosse team players accused of kidnapping and raping an African-American woman has brought to the fore a number of festering economic and social tensions in this southern city.

The symbiotic -- but not always easy -- relationship between the working-class city and affluent college, as well as race relations between blacks and whites, are some elements surrounding the case, as is the fact that Durham-based District attorney Mike Nifong, the case's prosecutor, is currently running for re-election and will be under pressure to win a conviction.

On Mar. 13, an African-American woman, who is 27 and remains unidentified, was hired as a stripper for a party comprised of members of the Duke University men's lacrosse team, whose 47 players include just one African American student. She told local police that she was pulled into a bathroom of the off-campus house where the party was located and raped and beaten by three men.

On Apr. 17, two lacrosse players who attended the party -- Collin Finnerty, 19, and Reade Seligmann, 20 -- were arrested in connection with the alleged crime. Both face one charge of sex offense and kidnapping and one charge of first-degree rape.

If convicted of all charges, each could receive 46-year prison terms. Both Finnerty and Seligmann were bonded out of jail by their respective parents. No trial date has been set.

The case has some native residents defending this city, which has seen its share of both overt racism and community solidarity. Last year, three crosses were burnt in the area, a common scare tactic of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan. However, citizens from both the black and white communities quickly turned out in the hundreds for candlelight vigils in protest.

"The media income of Durham (citizens) is about $42-43,000 and we have a large African-American middle class that lives here," Durham Mayor Bill Bell told IPS. "Our unemployment rate is only 4.4 percent."

Yet Bishop John Bennett of the Church of the Apostolic Revival in Durham has a different viewpoint. "One of the driving forces (behind the numerous stories about the case) is the financial differences between African-Americans and Caucasians. I've had both African-Americans and whites complain to me that our economy can do better," said Bennett.

A number of protests occurred after the case hit the national media, and Bennett organized and spoke at one of them. He was quick to note that, "We're not judging those two young men (the arrested men's lacrosse team players) or the young African-American woman (the alleged victim). We are praying for this community."

The subject of social class is another consideration. The accused students from the pricy Duke University, whose tuition is about 43,000 dollars per year and whose student body is mostly white, are accused of assaulting an African-American woman who was also a student at Durham's North Carolina State University, traditionally attended mostly by African-Americans and which costs about a fourth of Duke.

"In northeast central Durham, you probably have the highest amount of poverty, but the leaders around here want to fix economic problems there and race is only one factor when they try to create things to fix those problems," explained Michael Palmer, director of Community Affairs at Duke University.

All those interviewed by IPS said that they believe the national media has somewhat over-hyped the friction between African-Americans and whites in the area and at Duke University.

However, racial tensions undeniably lurk at the heart of the case. The alleged victim told police that when she was leaving the party house, a young white man yelled, "Thank your grandpa for my cotton shirt" -- a reference to the U.S. South's history of plantation slavery.

During Duke's recent alumni reunion weekend Apr. 21-23, Richard Brodhead, the University's president, told alumni that Duke was going to form committees to deal with the issues that have surfaced from the case. He has refused to discuss the case in detail to reporters, citing the fact that it is still under investigation.

On the Duke campus itself, there is an aura of weariness and defensiveness. Overheard conversations among students frequently included the phrase "when this thing blows over," and twice, alumni visiting for Alumni Reunion Weekend quickly walked away from inquiring television reporters. The university also made a sheet available to alumni entitled "Dealing with News Media at Reunion."

Duke University contributed $3.2 billion into Durham's economy over the past year, according to a study by the university's Office of Public Affairs that was made public on Apr. 20. The report stated that 1.6 billion dollars was spent in Durham by those affiliated with the private university, but that the total economic impact on the community is double that figure.

Durham's population is 187,000 and about 45 percent are African-Americas. Whites make up 55 percent of the population. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the leader of the mid-20th century civil rights movement in the U.S., once came here to discuss race relations.

"There are a lot of political action committees in the area, some of which deal with race relations, but not one PAC deals solely with race relations," revealed Jim Wise, a reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer newspaper who also writes about the history of the area for the publication.

"I don't think that there's any more racism in Durham that there is anywhere else in the South. A lot of it was dormant and the media sort of opened it up, because we have so much history (on race matters)," said Bennett.

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Albion Monitor   April 30, 2006   (

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