University rape claim awakens demons of America's Deep South

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The Independent US

On first glance the house at 610 North Buchanan Boulevard does not stand out. Like the other properties on the eastern edge of Duke University's campus, it has a prime location looking out over the oak and magnolia trees beneath which pass a constant stream of joggers.

A little closer inspection suggests that this particular house has long been rented out to students rather than being occupied by loving owners: the paint is peeling and there is a general dishevelled air.

It was at this house that a black 27-year-old stripper was allegedly gang-raped by members of the university's almost exclusively white lacrosse team at a late night party at which she and another black woman, Kim Roberts, had been hired to perform. The alleged incident has created a storm, not just within the university, but across the country, highlighting some of the nation's more obvious faultlines and triggering a re-examination of the issues of race, class and gender. The alleged attack took place six weeks ago and yet the controversy has barely been out of the headlines. Two players - Reade Seligmann, 20, and 19-year-old Collin Finnerty - have been charged with raping the single mother-of-two and released on bail.

This week the controversy will intensify. The prosecutor, Mike Nifong, has indicated that he expects to charge a third member of the 46-strong squad. In addition, any day will see the publication of an investigation commissioned by the university into the lacrosse team. It is expected to highlight some of factors that could lie behind this incident.

"People have been trying to deal with the battle of good liberals fighting with themselves in believing [the allegations of] the rape victim or else believing in rights of the defendants," said Jacob Remus, 25, a post-graduate history student who had just walked past No 610. "There is also a disagreement about what lens to see this through - race, privilege, class or culture ... [I think] it's all of the above."

Those who seek to frame the incident as a simple clash between black and white, privileged and dispossessed, do not have to work hard. Duke University, a private college where students pay annual fees of $32,409 (£17,720) and where 71 per cent are white, has long been considered a bastion of privilege.

A stroll around the vast campus - established at its current location in 1892 with money from a tobacco baron - gives a clue as to the attractions of Duke. There are carefully sculpted grounds, avenues of mature trees and splendid buildings built around a Gothic chapel. An atmosphere of quiet entitlement pervades.

Three miles away stands North Carolina Central University (NCCU), a state institution and historically black, at which the alleged victim is a student. By most standards the campus would be considered small yet neat and in the past six years it has received $120m investment, but in comparison to Duke it seems utterly impoverished. In-state students pay just $3,146. More than 90 per cent of students are black.

If the students at Duke do not know what to make of the incident, the students at NCCU have few doubts. They are convinced this is a race issue. "They live on the other side of town. They look down on us because we go to a black college," said Donn Perkins, 21, a political science student, standing with friends at the entrance of the campus.

Another student, Lawrence, 25, said: "If the tables had been turned and two white women had been raped by the [NCCU] football team, the whole team would be in jail. They would not be walking around."

The father of the alleged victim, a quietly spoken retired lorry driver, said he was convinced that race was a factor. Asked if he thought the situation would have been handled differently if his daughter had been white, he replied: "I know it would have been different. Those boys would have been in jail the same day it happened."

If his response is understandable, other high-profile commentators have been equally predictable. For some, it seems the context and circumstances of the alleged crime - and particularly its location in the South - are more important than the event itself.

Eugene Robinson, a black columnist with The Washington Post, wrote: "It's impossible to avoid thinking of all the black women who were violated by drunken white men in the American South over the centuries. The master-slave relationship ... the use of sexual possession as an instrument of domination."

The right-wing radio host Russ Limbaugh commented that "the lacrosse team ... supposedly, you know, raped some, uh, hos".

While they have not stooped to such language, lawyers for Mr Seligmann and Mr Finnerty have sought to question the accuser's credibility. They filed a court filing seeking her medical and mental health records claiming she has "suffered from mental and emotional problems".

Meanwhile the discovery of an e-mail sent by one of the lacrosse team an hour after the party, in which he said he wanted to hire some strippers and kill them, has given many in Durham cause to consider the campus culture that exists at Duke and elsewhere. "I don't think it hurts to stop and ask what our students are doing in their spare time," said Sarah Nelson, 25, who works at Duke.