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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 April 2006, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Bitter race and rape row grips Duke campus
The BBC's Daniel Lak
By Daniel Lak
BBC News, Duke University, North Carolina

Surrounded by rolling hills and fragrant pine, Duke University is an impossibly lovely place.

The centrepiece of the campus is a soaring gothic spire that might have come from Oxford.

So too many of the stately Georgian buildings, green quadrangles and steady stream of scholars, wandering or relaxing on the lawns between classes.

It is an unlikely setting for a bitter row about race, class and community disharmony.

But that is what's gripping Duke these days at a time when the school should be cheering on its famed sports teams, celebrating yet another scientific breakthrough in its renowned laboratories or just enjoying the scent of dogwood blossoms in springtime.

The details are sordid and they have split campus and community, town and gown, along racial and political lines.

The university was founded by a tobacco family, the Dukes, who, by the standards of a century ago, were undoubted liberals.

Created 1924
Based in Durham, North Carolina
Campus dominated by 210ft Duke Tower
Students 2005: 12,237
Black undergraduates: 11%
Black postgraduates: 6%
Source: Duke University
Even the founder of the Duke dynasty - whose bronze statue depicts him reclining in a comfortable chair - was said not to have used slaves and to have been a reluctant conscript soldier for the Confederate side in the American Civil War.

Yet even aside from the current scandal, there is no escaping the hard reality that Duke's student population is largely white, well-off and from other parts of the country.

In fact, the median family income in the town of Durham, which hosts the university, is about the same as the cost of a year's tuition at Duke.

Rape allegations

So when a young black local woman, a single mother and student at an all-black college, accuses three young white men from the Duke lacrosse team of a brutal rape and vicious racist behaviour, it is bound to shake the very foundations of community harmony.

Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong (left) at a community forum
Prosecutor Mike Nifong (l) has vowed to unravel the rape claim
The young woman in question was also a stripper.

Police are currently looking into her allegations that she was assaulted while performing at a lacrosse team party.

Charges could be laid soon, even though defence lawyers say DNA testing has already exonerated the entire team. Or at least the 46 of 47 players who were tested.

The one black player on the squad was not tested as the accuser said her assailants had been white.

Racial disharmony

Civil rights activists, African studies professors, feminists, black community leaders and a lot of the stalwarts of the left that you find on any American campus have all lined up behind the victim and her claims.

Lacrosse team members and their parents, athletes past and present and various right-wing commentators in the US media hint darkly that the woman was either lying or had been assaulted before she came to the party.

Poster in Durham, North Carolina
Today equality exists in law and appearance but blacks still lag behind other communities
Caught in the middle, the Duke administration agonised for weeks before disbanding the lacrosse team and accepting the resignation of its coach.

The university president has said that whether or not the affair produces criminal convictions, Duke is going to look seriously at student alcohol abuse and whether racism does take place on campus.

This area is no stranger to issues of race.

North Carolina is in the deep south, a place where blacks were only given easy access to voting from the 1970s onwards, where they were once forced to live in separate neighbourhoods and ride different buses from whites, 100 years after the bloody civil war that emancipated them.

Today equality exists in law and in appearance but blacks still lag behind other communities in salary levels, university admissions and not guilty verdicts in jury trials.

It is still better being white in America.

Changing times?

Nevertheless, as I wandered the campus in the company of a global group of students and instructors, something did ring a little false.

William Barber, head of the North Carolina branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (Naacp)
National civil rights campaigners have joined the local campaign
It was all rather media driven and redolent of a familiar type of American crisis, with its arguments made for television and talk radio.

Not that the issues were not extremely serious, but one wondered if anyone fulminating in the media really cared about the human cost of it all.

Every student I spoke to, every professor too, wanted only to have the truth emerge from the thicket of outrage and the easy vilifications of entitled rich boys and black girls who strip for lacrosse teams.

Duke University, which spends some $50 million (28.5m) a year on scholarships for the underprivileged, employs 30,000 local people and turns out some of the US' best doctors, scientists, professors and basketball players, would like it all to go away.

I stood for a moment by the strangely soothing statue of Washington Duke, the self-made founder of the family dynasty.

His bronze face gazed across the quadrangle at a row of television live broadcast positions where sordid details of university life, allegations mostly, were echoing over the greensward: race, class, violence, and communities divided.

Mr Duke might well wonder if things have changed all that much since his time.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 September, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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