In the southern college town of Durham, North Carolina, the population of about 190,000 is almost equally divided between whites and blacks. Duke University, an elite private school with a largely white student body, sits in the western part of Durham. North Carolina Central University - a historically black, public institution - is on the other side of town. Downtown Durham sits in the middle of the two campuses… and, in the middle of a sexual assault case that has exposed underlying tensions of race and class.
On Saturday mornings this time of year, you can find many of Durham's permanent residents at the Farmer's Market, selling and buying goods. Lori Kerr, who has lived in Durham for 16 years, sells her hand-dyed t-shirts and dresses from a colorful booth. Kerr says her town isn't a hotbed of racial tension but admits that race relations seem more strained because of the sexual assault case that's drawn international attention. "I think that this incident has really increased what tension there was."
The 'incident' is alleged to have occurred at an off-campus party hosted by the Duke University lacrosse team. Three team members are charged with raping a woman they paid to dance at the party. The Duke students are white. The woman, a single mother and student at North Carolina Central, is black. Those dynamics have made it almost impossible to ignore the race factor.
Students on both campuses were certainly aware of the gulf separating the accuser and the accused. "I just feel like, if it was our football team and it may have been a white female from Duke University, the situation would have been totally different," says Ashby Arrington, voicing a popular opinion at North Carolina Central University. "I feel they would have arrested our football team that night without any type of DNA test and they would have gotten to the bottom line."
The same thought occurred to Duke senior Emin Hadziosmanovic. "I've been wondering for a while now how it would have been different if the attack had happened on campus and if it was still a black woman from Durham on campus, would it have strained it as much…or if it had happened off campus but it was a white woman."
That clash of race and class has transformed what would typically be a local news story into an international one, as reporters flocked to Durham to cover each development. Broadcast outlets carried news conferences as they happened.
The day the lacrosse team captain formally became the third player charged with first degree rape, sexual offense and kidnapping, his attorney, Joe Cheshire, spoke to reporters in downtown Durham. He told them, "This case is not about race. People … are trying to make it that way for whatever reason they want and I can't do anything about that… but that is the truth."
But that assertion doesn't make sense to Fitz Brundage, a history professor at the nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He says it's hard to separate class from race in a city like Durham, where there have been deep-seated divisions between black and white residents going back generations. "From my vantage point, it strikes me that this affair has almost become a Greek tragedy…sort of the perfect storm of southern history, identity, all coming together in curious ways."
The allegations raised in the Duke lacrosse case prompted the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, a civil rights group, to organize a gathering this week. It's called The Durham Conference on the Moral Challenges of our Culture.