The great unspoken now has public voice. Women rarely report sexual assault, rape. When the victim is African American, the silence is deafening. That is about to change.

ESPN and CBS put the Duke University lacrosse team on the national radar. During a break in the annual March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament, sports commentators reported that an “exotic” dancer had filed rape charges against members of the Duke lacrosse team. In their account the victim had it coming — she was an “exotic” dancer after all; “boys will be boys”; isn’t it too bad that the university president suspended the nationally ranked team from play, and a shame that a prestigious school is bruised.

With this discussion on national TV, there is little wonder that reports of rape are rare. According to a study by Michigan State University Law School, there are savage inequalities in the sentencing of men convicted of rape. If the victim is white, the perpetrator gets an average of 10 years in prison. But if the victim is African American, the perpetrator gets only an average of two years in prison. There is silence, because all rape victims know that they will be put on public trial, often in the media. The system is tarnished by male supremacy. There is deafening silence because African American women know that racism in the judicial system, a continuing legacy of slavery, can destroy them.

But the surrounding Durham community, North Carolina Central University, where the victim is a student, and Duke students and faculty had had enough.

The victim, a 27-year-old African American mother of two who is a full time student at NCCU, had only worked for an escort service for two months prior to the March 13 attack. She and a friend agreed for the first time to dance for a small bachelor party for the extra money — so much for the “exotic” dancer routine.

Of the 47 members of the lacrosse team, 46 are white, mostly from the northeast. Yearly tuition and board at Duke is $43,000, a little more than the average income for entire families in Durham.

Since March 13, there have been daily demonstrations, vigils, prayer services, sit-ins and town meetings in the neighborhood where the assault occurred and on both Duke and NCCU campuses, bridging the abyss of race and class.

NCCU students embraced the victim, raising money to help support her family while she recovered in the hospital from the assault.

Not this time will the victim recoil in silent shame from family and community. They have stepped forward, bringing comfort and dignity. This time, Black and white, affluent and struggling, professional and blue-collar people of good will united, acted and provided voice. Not as a mob, as some lawyers have suggested, but as civilized society.

The Durham and university community broke the code of silence. This time, the people forced the rich and powerful to the courtroom. This time the people protected, not blamed or ignored, the victim. This time, the rule of law has a chance.

Denise Winebrenner Edwards ( is a member of the People’s Weekly World editorial board.