How could the reporter and editors responsible for the first NYT story on the gang rape in Cleveland, Texas, be so sexist? Because they were trying to avoid appearing racist -- at least, that's my best guess.
When the story broke, I added some comments on race. Since no one responded, readers are now stuck with a whole post on the subject.
Mainstream reporters are not supposed to mention race unless it's essential to a story. The NYT story didn't mention it. The reporter must have realized that race has influenced the perceptions of this case by some (if not many) townspeople. On one side, he had authorities, mostly white, accusing black males of rape, evoking the history of lynching. Perhaps he thought he would report the "other side" by parachuting into the Quarters, the predominantly black neighborhood where the rapes occurred, and interviewing black residents who blamed the young victim.
At least online, the NYT ran only two photos, both of the abandoned trailer where the girl was raped. It chose not to show mug shots of the suspects. After other media published mug shots, the ethnicity of the victim still wasn't disclosed right away. (She's Hispanic and was 11 in the fall, when the rapes occurred. Authorities now say she was raped in September and October before the November gang rape.)
More confusion followed when Quanell X, leader of the New Black Panther Party in Houston, held a town forum in which he and the audience -- composed mostly of African-Americans, judging from videos -- heaped more criticism on the girl and her parents. Initial stories did not mention the race of the audience, nor did they print inflammatory statements from Quanell X such as: "It looks like the Ku Klu Klan is leading the investigation."
Some people assumed that the audience was representative of the town. Jason Linkins in the Huffington Post suggested virtually all of the town's residents were monsters. Dan Amira in New York Magazine said: "If Cleveland, Texas, is suddenly consumed by fire and brimstone, you'll know why." A woman who posted on a Facebook page for the town addressed the residents interviewed by the national media: "Thank you for giving them another reason to look at Texans as a bunch of redneck, trailer park trash."
Lots of people look down on poor, rural whites in the South. I know. I was one, and we lived in a trailer for two years. I have relatives who live in a trailer in rural Texas. Even among liberals/leftists who are supposed to care about class, people shake their heads over ignorant rednecks. But referring to African-Americans as monsters who deserve to die? That's generally the territory of white supremacists, whose websites are on this case like white on rice.
The town has almost 8,000 residents, with 45.7 percent white, 23.7 percent African-American, and 27.7 percent Hispanic. ABC News quoted Brenda Myers, who runs a youth center there:
It's becoming a black and white issue because it happened over in the quarters. It's segregating our community again.Racial tensions between blacks and whites rose last year after a former white mayor pushed to recall three City Council members, all black, over accusations of financial mismanagement. It's not surprising that African-Americans might feel grief and anger over 18 black males arrested, especially the teens who had otherwise shown promise.
The response might have been different if the victim had been an African-American who lived in the same neighborhood as the boys, a girl who had grown up with them, a girl whose parents knew their parents. It might have been different, but who knows, considering how many rape victims from all walks of life get criticized, and how few acquaintance rapes get reported. On one web site, a photo of the victim was published with the word "snitch."
Black residents could still have raised questions of racism, asking, for example, why more white guys aren't prosecuted for gang rapes, or whether white authorities were mistreating black suspects. Racist whites would still have depicted African-Americans as animals.
Last week, Susan at HayLadies wrote that people would not have blamed the victim if she were white. That thinking disappears class. Lots of whites look down on lower-class whites, and many whites and blacks look down on white women who hang out with black men. At least two of the suspects were stars on a winning basketball team, and no one should underestimate the ability of sports fans to excuse rape by athletes.
Why would anyone expect black residents to blame a Hispanic girl and not a white one? After all, anti-lynching campaigns were based, in part, on the idea that white women falsely accused black men of rape. In "A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America," Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson quote Hazel Carby:
Rape has always involved patriarchal notions of women being, at best, not entirely unwilling accomplices, if not outwardly inviting sexual attack.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett capitalized on this thinking when "she declared that no one really believed black men were raping white women," Hine and Thompson wrote. Instead, she suggested, accusations cast aspersions on the morality of the white women.
In the Texas case, if the girl were black, and the suspects were non-Hispanic whites, I guarantee the NYT would have mentioned race, and some whites would be making racist comments while other whites decried racism. African-Americans would support the girl. If the suspects were Latinos, some people would try to make it an immigration issue. (By the way, the media has noted that the girl was born in Cleveland. For the sake of the family, I hope they are citizens, too.)
Quanell X referenced tensions between blacks and Hispanics, but I haven't seen any other reporting on that topic, other than a small rally in Houston by Mujeres Unidas.
Whatever the mix of ethnicities, I'm pretty sure this story would have gone national, not just because the gang rape of an 11-year-old by this many boys and men is sufficiently heinous, but also because cell phone photos and video were passed around her middle school. Expect a trend story in the NYT's Style section.
Some odds & ends: I don't have to say "alleged" in regard to the rapes because some suspects admit that they had sex with the girl. Even if she consented, Texas law would still consider it forcible rape, unless a boy was older by only three years or less. One of the suspects is 14. They also can be charged with other offenses, such as kidnapping and making and distributing child pornography.
I can refer to rapists, but not when I'm talking about specific suspects, since they haven't been convicted.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a party full of educated leftists. A professor argued against laws that established an age of consent, saying the judicial system should determine if a child was mature enough to consent. Imagine how much worse the victim-blaming would be.
Please read Akiba Solomon's take on this case at ColorLines. The writing is tremendous.
Update: The Houston Chronicle has court documents describing four young men as the ringleaders. Multiple men and boys raped the girl on at least four different days from September to December. A child advocate described how adults can groom a child, winning her trust, before asking more and more of her.