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On cross lacrosse discourse

I alluded here yesterday to wanting to touch more on a comment left in yesterday’s post on the Duke lacrosse suit -- namely, a comment left by a visitor to the extent that one of us Durhamites would rather see a statue of Victoria Peterson erected over a tribute to the LAX players.

I wanted to highlight this comment because it’s symptomatic of a sadder, but all-too-predictable, part of the debate over this case. Namely, the way in which an admitted miscarriage of justice plays in Durham versus how it would elsewhere in the U.S. -- and at the same time, a source of ongoing frustration for Bull City residents.

Michael talks about the nature of the debate a bit over at his place, taking issue with the view that this miscarriage of justice could happen only in Durham:

This is perhaps the most infuriating theme of these blogs, in that it is simultaneously personally insulting and incredibly myopic.  I have no doubt that there are conditions unique to Durham which exacerbated this case, but the notion that prosecutors blinded by political ambition, over-eager police officers, media outlets willing to bend the story to the popular imagination, police chiefs that close ranks with the officer "brotherhood" rather than reprimand one of his own, and loose cannon activists that give quotable, explosive media quotes are somehow only found in the Bull City is beyond ludicrous.

Michael's absolutely right on this. So where, then do these high-strung emotions come from? It strikes me that it comes from a far-deeper source of social dysfunction than the city limits of Durham can contain.

There are certainly what I would consider respectable voices out there who’ve been arguing the case for the players throughout the mess.  KC Johnson’s blog stood out as one, as do some of the other voices in the fracas (James Coleman and Mike Gustafson are two good examples).  I might have disagreed with them on facts, conclusions or issues, but in the end they were arguing on the merits and elements of the case. This issue stood out as a failing of the justice system affecting the players, their families, and others surrounding them; this was the lens that these commentators and many others took.

There has been another tide of voices in the debate. Not organized voices per se, but the voices that come forward anonymously on blog posts and Internet message boards with a tone of derision, anger and passion. Some of this focused on the so-called “Gang of 88” and served, for all intents and purposes, as this year’s proxy event for the culture-war beef many individuals, particularly on the right, have with universities.

But much of the remaining wave of vitriol has been directed at Durham itself as a city and entity. When posters at the Chronicle, or WRAL, or other sites fixate on “Al and Jesse” coming to town, or the November D.A. elections, or on (odd fixture of the political scene that she may be) Victoria Peterson, there is a certain air of despising in the tone and words. 

The rhetoric moves beyond the facts of the case, on to a conclusion frequently stated in the online discourse at least -- namely, that Durham somehow “deserves to be punished” as a city, much as a wayward child might expect a spanking after some misdeed. Certainly the tone of the moral dessert of a $30 million settlement takes such a path, with many of these commenters smugly warning that it could cost hundreds of millions by the time the attorneys “get through with” the City of Medicine.

To those seeing Durham through the lens of the lacrosse case alone, it might appear to be your stereotypical post-Drudge, post-Hannity pile on. A one-off flurry of arrows and barbs that will disappear at the next media conflagration.

Except for the fact that Durham is, collectively, used to such rhetoric.  Web message boards at the local TV stations already fill up with comments any time a shooting happens in the Bull City.  At the least, expect snide comments about the need for a bullet-proof vest in Durham.  Followed more typically by comments of the need to get the “thugs” out of Durham, where thug generally seems to be a code-word for young African-American male.  (Occasionally, such comments about thugs are followed by jokes about fried chicken, you see.)

The external negativity about Durham did not begin with Duke lacrosse.  It won’t end with Duke lacrosse.  At its heart, to my mind, is the same source of the rabid complaints about New Orleans after Katrina, or the jibes at other major urban centers: namely, Durham is a diverse, socioeconomically integrated city in an increasingly fragmented United States.

One of the reasons I chose to live in Durham, despite the presence of so many other cities I could have called home in the Triangle, was that I wanted to live in an economically diverse community, a place that looked like America.  I mentioned this to a former colleague in my old lefty haunts of Boston last weekend and he looked at me, completely puzzled.  The expression seemed to say, why would you want that?

After all, the American dream is to move up the economic ladder, and in a world of suburban and exurban lifestyles, that means moving to new subdivisions surrounded by the comfortable trappings of a mass retail existence. Wake Forest’s boom, linked so closely to Triangle Town Center and I-540, is one example of what is, for many, the desiderata of modern life.  I mean, who wants to live where there’s poor people, right? 

To abuse the late Douglas Adams for a moment, to many Americans, it seems that if you can’t see poverty, it really isn’t there. And so many of us do our best to live in isolated pockets at the demographic extremes.

Which leads many on the outside to a typical conclusion: if poverty exists, it’s certainly due to dysfunction in whatever place the poverty resides. Be it an inner city, or a mobile home park, or a Native American reservation.  If they’d just work a little harder, if they’d just stop having kids, if they’d just put down the bottle, if they’d give up the drugs -- their life would be like mine.

Frankly, a large segment of the U.S. population can’t understand why anyone would choose to live inside Durham. What they may not realize is, many of us who are here wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else.

The issues of race and class may come to mind so readily because I’ve been absorbed in Osha Gray Davidson’s compelling book, The Best of Enemies, this week while traveling for work. Davidson lays forth the story of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater -- the former a leader in Durham’s Ku Klux Klan, the latter a liberal black urban activist.  Ellis and Atwater became allies and lifelong friends in the battle over school desegregation in Durham.

Before the author gets to Ellis and Atwater’s relationship, though, she spends a great deal of time talking about race and class in pre-civil rights Durham.  We like to boost Durham as an early leader in African-American economic success, and Davidson tells that story well. 

But Davidson also makes a compelling try at stripping away the veneer of that well-known tale, describing the abject poverty in parts of Hayti, and the deep separation between the lives of the leaders of NC Mutual Life and other black financial institutions and the large black working poor in Durham.  To Davidson’s retelling, the black upper-middle class and professionals tended to resist early student sit-ins for integration, arguing instead for a slower pace towards progress.

Or, to sum up Davidson’s argument -- these elites favored a strategy of accommodation that wouldn’t rock the boat of those in the black community who had already reached the top of the economic ladder.  To the author’s thesis, Ellis and Atwater became allies because they realized that their shared place on the bottom of the economic pyramid was more compelling than the difference in their race.

What does this all have to do with today’s Durham, N.C.? Simply put, we’re the rare city that is transparent and supportive of its diversity. The Durham of fifty years ago reveled in its history as an economic powerhouse, the Jewel of the New South, but did so with a best foot forward, and the other foot hidden behind a velvet curtain.  (Visiting dignitaries from other countries, Davidson notes, were brought in to meet the Parrish Street elites and to dine at a table with white and black leaders, but they didn’t get to go to segregated facilities -- or to see the slums that held poor whites and poor blacks.)

The Durham of today is much more transparent about its diversity. Heck, it’s the central theme of our tourism marketing machine.  We still have class divisions, to be sure, and racial tension.  But it’s not something we sweep under the rug; to the contrary, improving Durham for all citizens and providing services to help the least-empowered members of our community is the pillar of most political campaigns and an ongoing focus by local elected and governmental officials.

But this comes in the context of an American which has largely gone down a different path, towards economic and racial isolation.  In so many ways, it’s a far more dangerous destination, for you always seem to fear the other that you don’t see more than the other that you do.

Durham’s diversity makes the city an asterisk in a Sunbelt that’s well-divided along freeway intersections and corporate town limits.  Which makes it hard for people in neighboring suburbs, or Florida or Arizona or whathaveyou, to understand Durham. And it tends to make Durham a target for scorn and ridicule from those who, for whatever reason, don’t value diversity as much as we do.

I mean, heck, who’d want to live here?

And ultimately, it’s that meme that underlies the worst of the public discourse, the skeleton in the closet that no one wants to talk about.

So to those partisans in this impolite war: I invite you to criticize the case, the prosecution, the actions of the police and the city manager and city leaders… even the population itself to the extent of how residents struggled with the case. And if wrongs have been done, the City and taxpayers will be held accountable, it seems certain.

But I ask that you also take a look at the tone and nature of the more inappropriate rhetoric, particularly those elements that take a dim view on a terrific city, elements who talk in undertones darker than one wishes to see in the human psyche.  And when you do, ask yourself: is the lacrosse case in and of itself really the only element of this story that has caused so much rage?  Or does the raw emotion have its base in the kind of fear of the other that has become so much easier in a divided America?

It’s a vital question, because civic society only works so long as society is civil.



Well said, Kevin.

James Martin

Hear, hear! I chose to move to Durham for all the same reasons: I want my son to grow up in a place where he will be forced to meet, live with and come to love, new cultures and new ideas that may be different than his. Durham provides that opportunity like no other town that I know of in this area. There will always be bad apples, but it's a poor farmer who throws out the bushel because of one apple.


Thanks, Kevin. Well thought and well said.

John Schelp

Well done, Kevin. This is an important message. Thank you.


As one of the partisans to whom Kevin refers, I'd like to point out that all of this vitriol directed at Durham is not altogether a bad thing. It keeps out the riff raff, and I'm not talking about poor people.

Consider two visions for Durham's future. One is the suburban paradise that Kevin portrays, which is the likely result of electing "law and order" types or those in the pocket of the real estate developers. Ambacco looks more and more like Southpoint, and Durham loses its edge.

On the other hand, if so-called liberals get their way we'll become so concerned with smart growth, new urbanism, and open space that we'll ossify the natural change agents that give this city so much its flavor. Think Chapel Hill, where you can't light a cigarette without some montessori mom lodging a complaint. When I moved here twenty years ago I could see it coming plain as day, and moving to Cambridge before returning to Durham only reinforced my beliefs about how cities lose their cool.

I'd like to say that the "third way" is a libertarian approach, where corporate welfare to former Duke b-ball stars is slashed along with the taxes that fund them. But in the meantime, I'll take a government that is so amusingly ineffective as to be irrelevant. It's great cocktail conversation among the chattering classes, but doesn't affect my life in many meaningful ways.

I love this town, and won't be tempted to give up diversity for security anytime soon.


"corporate welfare to former Duke b-ball stars is slashed"

"I love this town, and won't be tempted to give up diversity for security anytime soon."


Personally, I think Southpoint should be demolished...but that's just me ;)


Osha Gray is actually a male.
"...relationship, though, 'she' spends a great deal of time..."

lisa b

Wait, someone actually wants to erect a tribute to the LAX players? We really have to do something about the lead in our water system ...

Tom Clark

Very thoughtful, Kevin. TBOE is a very compelling story about Durham. It's been a while since I read it, but I do remember thinking it risks being a little too warm and fuzzy, as if racial tensions had been so thoroughly trounced by Ellis/Atwater that they don't really operate anymore.

I've watched and participated in Durham politics, one way and another, for 35+ years. I think the thing that distinguishes Durham from other towns is presence of a large, active and very organized black middle class. One of the legacies of the 'Black Wall Street' phenomenon is a significant body of black wealth that, while perhaps getting politically out-maneuvered occasionally (see the Hayti/Expressway/'Urban Renewal issue of the 1970’s) is never going to sit idly by while some group of would-be movers and shakers (traditionally, white merchants and construction-trade entrepreneurs and occasionally, the University, though usually behind the scenes) has their way with the electorate and the local economy, as has been the case is many towns, particularly in the South.

I believe that much of what you hear as 'conventional wisdom' -- "...but this is Durham...," "...unusually high-crime...taxes," the latest version of this kind of hysteria coming now about the lacrosse case--has its roots in the simple, but intense, as in Civil War/Reconstruction- intense, sour-grapes attitudes of these 'dispossessed' movers and shakers and their literal and economic ancestors, particularly some who operated the Herald-Sun newspaper for so long. They have had a hard time adjusting to the fact of some realized black political power.

I would never say this is the only factor in any issue—clearly Mike Nifong played the rogue in this lacrosse case--just that this kind of historical bias, shall we call it, is actually still a factor, a significant one, I believe, in how we discuss most any issue around here, especially crime or anything close to it.

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