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In Durham, race becomes focal point

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."