Duke rape case inspires racist pseudo-science

Having been warned about stepping into the tempest that is the blogospheric discussion of the Duke lacrosse rape case, I can't say I'm surprised that my writing about it has drawn angry comments to Facing South. Though I don't plan to cover the case extensively going forward, there are some comments that I'd like to address before moving on.

One controversial aspect of my reporting has been my focus on the accuser's long history of serious mental problems. According to the latest revelations from the Raleigh News & Observer, unsealed records from UNC Healthcare contained in Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong's files show the woman was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking Depakote and Seroquel, drugs used to treat manic episodes associated with that disorder; Seroquel is also used to treat schizophrenia. Apparently, my pointing out these facts upsets the narrative of those who want to make the accuser out to be the villainous responsible party in the case.

But that narrative fails to hold up under scrutiny. Clearly, it was Nifong's responsibility to check out the credibility of his sole witness before dragging her, three criminally innocent men and the broader community through hell and back. He failed to do that and should be held to account.

The other controversial aspect of my reporting has been my effort to understand why some civil rights leaders were so inclined to believe the narrative offered by Nifong -- that of the poor black woman sexually abused by privileged white men. As I pointed out, there's a long and ugly history in the United States of sexualized violence being used in the service of white supremacy, in a way that has certain parallels with lynching. As historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall wrote in her essay "'The Mind That Burns in Each Body': Women, Rape, and Racial Violence":

The association between lynching and rape appears most clearly in their parallel use in racial subordination. As Diane K. Lewis has pointed out, in a patriarchal society, black men, as men, constituted a potential challenge to the established order. Laws were formulated primarily to exclude black men from adult male prerogatives in the public sphere and lynching meshed with these legal mechanisms of exclusion. Black women represented a more ambiguous threat. They too were denied access to the politico-juridical domain, but since they shared this exclusion with women in general, its maintenance engendered less anxiety and required less force. Lynching served primarily to dramatize hierarchies among men. In contrast, the violence directed at black women illustrates the double jeopardy of race and sex. The records of the Freedmen's Bureau and the oral histories collected by the Federal Writers' Project testify to the sexual atrocities endured by black women as whites sought to reassert their command over the newly freed slaves. Black women were sometimes executed by lynch mobs, but more routinely they served as targets of sexual assault.

I noted that this sexualized violence directed against black women to uphold white supremacy continued well into the modern civil rights era, as discussed by historian Danielle L. McGuire in her essay "'It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped': Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African-American Freedom Struggle".

My reporting on this troubling aspect of U.S. history has sparked a particularly strong reaction from one Anonymous, who challenges these facts by asserting -- much as white supremacists once did in order to impose and uphold Jim Crow -- that today there's actually an epidemic of black men raping white women. As he wrote in one comment:

The U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Study (NCVS) has shown, between 2001 and 2003, there were, on average, 15,400 black-on-white rapes per year, while whites averaged only 900 white-on-black rapes per year (a black-white ratio of 17.1:1). As Parker noted, the proportion of single-attacker white-on-black rape is so rare as to be statistically non-existent (less than one-half of one percent). ...Since there are five-and-one-half times as many whites as blacks in America, that means that blacks rape whites over ninety times as frequently as whites rape blacks. Except that the black-white interracial gap is actually much higher. The 'white' figure (900) is inflated by Hispanic offenders being counted as white. And no reliable statistics for interracial prison rape were included in the NCVS. Thus, the real black-white ratio is likely 200:1 or higher.

This data struck me as dubious, since I spent several years volunteering as a counselor in a rape crisis center at a large urban hospital and can't recall encountering any cases of interracial rape, let alone the sort of disparity Anonymous asserts. Since he didn't include citations for his claims, I did some checking, guessing that his post was drawn from another source. So I entered into a search engine the first bit of his comment -- "The U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Study (NCVS) has shown, between 2001 and 2003, there were, on average, 15,400 black-on-white rapes per year" -- to see what came up.

As it turns out, the passage comes from an article on the Duke case originally published on VDARE.com, a paleoconservative Web site that focuses on limiting immigration to the United States. The site is supported by the VDARE Foundation, created by former Forbes and National Review editor Peter Brimelow and named for the first English child born in the Americas. It used to be part of the Virginia-based Center for American Unity, which opposes "mass immigration, multiculturalism, multilingualism, and affirmative action."

While VDARE offers articles on immigration policy by well-known commentators including Pat Buchanan and Michelle Malkin, it also publishes articles that veer into racist territory. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, VDARE contributor Steve Sailer argued (and outrageously enough quoted the Institute's Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch contributor Bill Quigley in doing so) that racial differences in intelligence were to blame for the fact that so many of the city's residents were unable to evacuate. Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center several years ago classed VDARE as a hate group:

Reviving a favorite theme of early nativists and the Ku Klux Klan, Brimelow attacks 19th-century Catholic immigrants for being supposedly subservient to popes and monarchs, and thus incompatible with democratic self-rule.

The VDARE Web site also contains an archive of columns by Sam Francis, the immigrant-bashing editor of the newspaper of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens. In his columns, Francis rails against the "emerging Hispanic majority," plugs conspiracy theories, and promotes white racial consciousness.

In April, VDARE took one more step toward the racist right, publishing an essay on its Web site by white supremacist Jared Taylor that dismisses "the fantasy of racial equality," claims the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "stripped Americans of the right to make free decisions," and says that "[b]lacks, in particular, riot with little provocation," unlike the far more peaceable white race.

Meanwhile, the "Parker" to which Sailer refers is conservative syndicated Orlando Sentinel columnist Kathleen Parker. In an April 2006 column titled "Fact and myth Duke it out," she wrote:

The U.S. Department of Justice's 2003 National Crime Victimization Survey, which breaks down crime victims and perpetrators by race, indicates that the vast majority of violent crimes, including rape, are intra-racial. Blacks tend to attack blacks, and whites tend to attack whites.

There is no current trend of white men raping black women, in other words. In fact, though sample sizes are considered too small to draw any solid conclusions, the most recent figures show that among white rape victims, 15.5 percent of those rapes were perpetrated by blacks, while 0.0 percent of black victims were raped by white males. (Zero in this case is a rounded figure meaning that the total number of black women raped by white men is between 0 and half of 1 percent of the total.)

Not that anyone's counting. But if we're going to talk about race and crime, we may as well rely on facts rather than ancient memories that serve only to sensationalize and emotionalize what is already a painful episode in Southern history.

Note what Parker actually says: That the "vast majority of rapes are intra-racial," and that the samples she uses to suggest that slightly more rapes of whites are perpetrated by blacks "are considered too small to draw any solid conclusions." Unfortunately, that didn't stop Sailer and VDARE from drawing questionable conclusions anyway, and it didn't stop Anonymous from repeating them here.

This racist pseudo-science also fails to account for the fact that blacks are a minority in the United States and therefore represent a minority of potential victims for a white rapist, while whites are the majority and thus represent a majority of potential victims for a black rapist. Nor does it account for problems with crime reporting. Studies have shown that sexual assault tends to be under-reported in general; for example, the 1999 U.S. National Crime Victimization Survey found that only 39 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to law enforcement authorities. At the same time, under-reporting of crime in general is more likely within minority communities.

Let me be clear that I'm not arguing the converse of Anonymous: I'm not trying to make the case that there's an epidemic of whites raping blacks. As I learned firsthand from my experience working with rape survivors, the overwhelming majority of rapes are not only intra-racial but are perpetrated upon victims by people they know. But I am arguing that until we as a nation begin grappling seriously with our troubled history of race, and until we grasp the way that sexualized violence has been used to bolster white supremacy, we won't understand the reaction some Americans had to the initial Duke rape charges. And until we understand that reaction, it will be that much harder for us to heal the racial rifts so tragically deepened by this case.