The Duke Lacrosse players accused of the kidnap and sexual assault of a woman hired to “entertain” at a team party have been found innocent, the prosecutor in the case has resigned and will most likely be disbarred, and the players themselves now have an undisclosed settlement with Duke University that surely nets them some serious cash to make up for their having to endure this miscarriage of justice. They are innocent. More than that, they are victims of an unscrupulous prosecutor who was more interested in his own reelection than justice. As the chairman of the disciplinary committee overseeing hearing on Nifong’s actions in this case has said, “We had a prosecutor who was faced with a very unusual situation in which the confluence of his self-interest collided with a very volatile mix of race, sex and class.”
This situation is anything but unusual, of course. The hyping of the Duke lacrosse rape case has done what all hyping does: make it seem as if this case is unique when it just plain isn’t, even if those accused look different from who we expect to be accused. Self-interest and race, sex and class are always in play in the justice system, especially in these sorts of spectacular moments where national anxieties are worked out.
The coverage of this case, from all sides, has worked on the basic assumption that there is something as clear as guilt, innocence, and evidence, as if all these aspects of something we call justice are ontologically real rather than what they are: social projects. What makes this case different, perhaps, is the national demand for redress for these accused players who are constructed as innocent bystanders caught in the media firestorm.
There is nothing particularly unusual in the confluence of social differences that congealed in this case, and nothing unusual about the actions that led to the charges in the first place. Hyperprivileged young men at private colleges throwing drunken team parties imbued with the erotics of sexual violence isn’t anything new. And the individualizing of social disorder through methods of crime and punishment isn’t new either. What is perhaps unusual was that these men, and their lacrosse coach, were made to pay the price for the social disorders caused by racism, sexism and classism that lead to the shocking inequities among people in the same community. The outcry at this injustice is, I think, telling. These young men are figured as the victims of terrible loss. What is lost when these men can’t play their last lacrosse season, can’t enjoy their senior years as big men on campus, is true loss, while the multitudes of poor people and people of color who regularly lose, who daily pay the price for social disorder in prisons, in neighborhoods purposely blighted by white flight, in schools massively underfunded so that others can prosper, is expected loss, and loss that we are increasingly unable to mourn. None of this is to say that this case itself was not terribly botched, or that these individuals did not suffer wrong. But this settlement does expose the difference in value of some lives over others, and that difference means the lacrosse players will get their settlement while others are expected to endure as the necessary cost for others to exercise their privileges.