Now that the TV lights have dimmed and there’s a clearer view of the Duke lacrosse saga, one fact shines though: It was never really about the relationship between Duke and Durham. Despite the national media’s simplistic insistence on making it a town-gown battle between a poor, black community at odds with a white, Ivy League wannabe, the facts do not bear it out.
As Jeff Stern reports, Durham’s image problem goes back decades, a victim of bad breaks, bad media–and tacit racism. As our readers write, Durham’s true nature was on display when black and white students and residents rallied together against sexual assault and the hatred spewed by a handful of Duke students.
While the university’s initial response to the allegations was weak and insensitive, it obscured the role the university plays in the community. (Full disclosure: My wife works in the Duke PR office, but that hasn’t tempered either my criticism or my appreciation of Duke.) Part of Duke’s value to Durham came clearest to me during the N.C. Festival of the Book. Two top lawyers, one white and one black, discussed To Kill a Mockingbird at a free showing at the Carolina Theatre–paid for by Duke. It is Duke’s cultural offerings that make Durham so rich compared to other cities its size. And its efforts in recent years to improve the community–raising $12 million to improve schools and neighborhoods around campus–show that while it once may have come closer to the plantation stereotype, it’s trying to do better, even if it’s enlightened self-interest.
Fifteen percent of Durham County’s work force–more than 19,000 people–are employed by Duke. They will have issues with the university, as will those in neighborhoods around campus whose problems aren’t taken as seriously as they should be. But that’s not the whole story–just the only one that most reporters bothered to tell.
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Starting this week the Independent Weekly has a new managing editor: Jennifer Strom, a reporter here for the past five years. Readers will know Strom’s name from some of the hardest hitting stories the paper has done since 2001–the definitive profile of Durham leader Lavonia Allison; an exposé of the international Divers Alert Network; and an investigation into an obscure state review board dominated by development interests that impedes rule-making, among many others. Most recently, Strom capped four years covering the way development money had taken over Chatham County politics when three grassroots reformers defeated two incumbents and a third on their ticket. After we portrayed the good guys in white hats on our May 26 cover, the reformers all wore white hats to their victory party.
Strom, 38, will take over planning and editing our front-of-the book features. Kirk Ross, who evolved into our Web guru, will remain in a freelance capacity, helping moderate our blog, Dent, and writing a column on state politics.