In Durham, race becomes focal point

Updated: April 15, 2006, 4:44 PM ET
Associated Press

DURHAM, N.C. -- Mayor Bill Bell is black. So are Police Chief Steven W. Chalmers, City Manager Patrick Baker and a majority of the city council. Durham's population is almost as black as it is white.

So why is it that some blacks like Preston Bizzell, a 61-year-old Air Force veteran who said he's never experienced racism in his 30 years in Durham, believe justice here is swifter and harsher for a black man than a white one?

Bizzell sat on his bicycle recently and stared at the house where a black stripper claims she was sexually assaulted and beaten by three white Duke University lacrosse players. He's convinced if the alleged attackers had been students at historically black North Carolina Central University, and their accuser white, "that same day, somebody would have been arrested."

"They wouldn't have spent that money [on DNA tests] over at that black university over there just to make sure they didn't do that," said Bizzell, a resident of the Walltown neighborhood, where some blacks still refer to the Duke campus as "the plantation." "No, no. If them girls had said, 'Him and him,' you're going to jail."

Without question, the case has racial overtones. But after a month of intense media scrutiny, it's hard to tell whether the coverage has shone a spotlight on existing racial tensions in Durham, or is creating those tensions.

Bell bristles at the suggestion that the rape allegations have somehow turned up the heat on simmering racial tensions in Durham. He says Durham has no more racial trouble than any city its size.

To him, comments like Bizzell's are more about the state of the country as a whole, where blacks are represented in jails and prisons out of proportion to their percentage in the population, as they are among the poor and poorly educated.

"I think it tends to be more out of frustration, with wanting to say something," he said. "I think it's more based on history."

Attorney Kerry Sutton, who represents one of the players, said it is outsiders who are injecting race into the story.

"They've made it a much bigger element than it ever should have been," she said.

On March 13, two black women went to an off-campus house to perform for members of the lacrosse team, which has only one black member. The accuser, a 27-year-old student at N.C. Central, has reportedly said she was subjected to racial slurs, and told police she was dragged into a bathroom and sexually assaulted.

At a forum last week on the Central campus, a vocal, mostly black crowd peppered District Attorney Mike Nifong with questions about why no one has been charged and why the FBI has not been called in to help investigate this as a hate crime.

Joe Cheshire, who represents one of the team captains, characterized much of what was said as, "We black people are mistreated by the criminal justice system, so what we need to do now is go out and mistreat white people."

Sutton finds it ironic that anyone would suggest Nifong was dragging his feet because the players are white, especially when he is taking so much heat for pursuing the case at all.

"I've never known Mike Nifong to make a decision based on the race of a victim or a defendant or an attorney or the judge or anybody," she said. "That is simply not a factor."

Bell, a former city council chairman and three-term mayor, said he's seen Durham reduced in news reports to "a city of poor blacks ... and you've got Duke off to its own -- a white university, a wealthy university."

In truth, he said, Durham's unemployment rate is just 4.4 percent. It's home to Research Triangle Park and its many high-tech companies. Two black-owned banks and the nation's largest black-owned insurance company are also based in Durham.

"We do have poverty," Bell said of his city of 187,000 residents. "But what city this size doesn't?"

As for the so-called racial tension he's read so much about, Bell hasn't seen it in the racially mixed crowds that have peacefully protested the alleged rape. "I'd say given the demographics of this community, I think you'll find more people are united on issues than are divided," he said.

But in a recent interview with The Associated Press, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said history can't help but loom large over this case. It is particularly horrible because these white men hired black women to strip for them.

"That fantasy's as old as slave masters impregnating young slave girls," he said.

Cheshire found Jackson's comment odd, since the lacrosse players did not specifically ask for black exotic dancers.

"There is no slave-master mentality here, and that's just another perfect example of ... self-absorbed race pandering," Cheshire said.

Jackson said he's been too busy with immigration issues and the upcoming New Orleans election to visit Durham, but plans to come at some point. The Rev. Al Sharpton had planned to attend a rally outside the party house this Sunday but canceled after its organizer asked him to stay away for now.

"We don't want our good to be turned into a racial issue," said Bishop John Bennett of the Church of the Apostolic Revival International. "I just think his coming may stir some people up."

There has been speculation of violence should no one be charged. Bell calls that expectation another sign of bias, recalling that last summer, when three seven-foot crosses were burned around town, whites and blacks came together to denounce the acts.

Bell arrived in Durham in 1968, the week the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He said the city was an oasis of calm and civility during that crisis.

"We did not have the looting, the burning, the rioting," he said. And today, no matter what happens in the Duke lacrosse case, "I have no fear of that."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press