Friday, May 26, 2006

Innocence and Irony
Lacrosse is not very big here, despite the fact that there's a major Wisconsin city called La Crosse, best known as the home of the World's Largest Six Pack. Few would pay attention to the game of lacrosse at all were it not for the Duke scandal. Today, the Duke women's team plays in the NCAA tournament in Boston. The team members will wear wristbands printed with the word "innocent," to show solidarity with the scandal-plagued men's team. And they really are solid--the women's team invited the ousted men's coach to give them a pre-tournament pep talk.

In the United States, we rarely talk about social class, even though it's often the most important thing that divides us. The Duke lacrosse scandal gives us a fine opportunity to confront it, although we'll spill barrels of ink and millions of pixels discussing the race and gender implications before we'll deal with the class aspect of the case. But the Duke women's "innocent" wristbands are evidence that class is not just an issue in the case, it's the issue.

Under normal circumstances, you'd expect gender to trump everything else here, because it often does. If members of the football team had thrown a party and invited strippers in, how many of the women's lacrosse players would have protested the insult to their gender? If the stripper had been raped and beaten by some of the football players, how many of the women's lacrosse players would have stood in solidarity with the victim? Yet that's not happening here.

Why not? Here's my guess. The members of the Duke women's lacrosse team come from the same privileged backgrounds as the men. Thus, they have the same understanding of how much the accused players have to lose. They have a similar view of the world--what they're entitled to, and who isn't entitled to the same things. So, if the men's team members felt that the stripper was less human than they, because of her race and her job, why wouldn't the women's team share that attitude? The men's team has closed around its members, forming a blue wall of silence, with players accused of nothing trying to obstruct the investigation, and the Duke women have chosen to stand along that wall with them. (One wonders: Are any of the women law students? Does their prejudging of a case before the legal system has weighed in strike them as ironic at all?)

The idea that we share a common humanity, a common destiny, a common good, is growing more outmoded by the day in America. All we share, in many people's eyes, is a common marketplace, a socioeconomic shark tank in which everybody has to compete with everybody else, best of luck and the devil take the hindmost. When we blindly assume conditions in the shark tank are equal for everybody--in other words, when we ignore the implications of social class--it's easy to assume those who don't share our class have only themselves to blame for it. And because they must have "failed," they're less worthy of respect than we are. And from that perception of inequality comes events such as the Duke scandal--and the weird solidarity of the women's players in a situation where we wouldn't expect to find it.

Short version: The men's lacrosse team is their kind of people, and a black woman who strips for a living is not. And that's the only thing that matters to them.

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