My daddy taught me that God has called us to love people and to use things but that we are often tempted to love things and use people. Rape is one of the deepest and most vicious ways that human beings deny their common humanity. Racism is another. These crimes are intertwined deeply in our history, and that history came off its leash once more on Buchanan Boulevard on March 13, as a few Duke students did great harm to our community. The question of whether they also committed rape is one that we must leave to the courts and the police.
But regardless of the fog around that question, other matters remain clear. Young white men of privilege deployed their unearned affluence to hire black women to provide live pornography. This is only partly a free market, where people choose to buy and sell themselves. It is also a slave market, where an enduring racial caste system placed those women in a vulnerable position.
Most of the people involved were college students. One of the women has small children and is trying to put herself through N.C. Central University. Our society has chosen to withhold support from people who seek to improve their lot. Grants and loans have become much harder to obtain at the same time that the gap between rich and poor yawns wider every day. The Duke students took advantage of the woman’s position. In doing so, they stepped into a tragic and painful history that still resonates.
White college students a few generations back would sometimes hire a black man to let them tie his hands behind his back, and then the black man would try to fish coins and bills out of a barrel of flour. More recently, white fraternities would don blackface and hold “slave auctions” at parties. Such minstrel humor was very popular but racially degrading, damaging the community and the people involved.
This is also the case with rich white boys hiring black “exotic dancers.”
The spirit of the lynch mob lived in that house on Buchanan Boulevard, regardless of the truth of the most serious charges. The ghastly spectacle takes its place in a history where African- American men were burned at the stake for “reckless eyeballing” — that is, looking at a white woman — and white men kept black concubines and mistresses and raped black women at will.
It matters, of course, what happened. But the dynamics of race, power and violence that have marred our history remain with us. When the men of one group have most of the power and privilege and see themselves as above the law, that will always be a recipe for abusive relationships with women from other groups, sometimes physically violent, more often spiritually violent.
What baffles me is that young men who have had available to them the finest liberal arts education that money can buy have managed not to learn its highest lessons. I am disappointed in them, to be sure, but I am also disappointed in myself and my colleagues. Surely we are better teachers than that.
But all that is so much whining.
Now we can only reach out in a spirit of healing to the communities that have been hurt. Now we can turn back to our teaching, put aside pedantry and cut to the heart of what education means: understanding that we are all human beings, that we are here to provide illumination and sustenance for each other, and that God and our highest human understandings all call us to better things.
TIMOTHY B. TYSON, author of “Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power” and “Blood Done Sign My Name,” is a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies and visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture in the Divinity School of Duke University.