Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Alleged Gang Rape of 11-Year-Old Raises Questions of Gender AND Race

Several media outlets have reported the arrests of 18 men in Cleveland, Texas, who are accused of raping an 11-year-old girl. The alleged rape occurred in November 2010. In published pictures, all of the accused are black. Obviously, the victim's photograph is not published. There are many reasons to believe, however, that she is also black.

Rape: A Feminist Issue

Some of the reporting on the subject has received criticism. In particular, a New York Times article seems to empathize more with the accused rapists, rather than the victim. For example, the article article reports that people in the city are worried about the young men:
The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”
The article does not report any statements of concern for the health of the young victim. Furthermore, the article contains quotations from residents of Cleveland that blame the victim and her mother from the alleged crime:
Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”
For a long time, feminist legal theorists have criticized US rape law. Traditionally, the law permitted defense attorneys to rebut rape allegations by probing into the sexual background of the women. Under prevailing gender constructs, promiscuous women consent to sex and cannot be raped. Rape allegations made by women who are alluring -- either in terms of fashion or makeup -- are also suspicious. Accordingly, the gender-based criticism of the New York Times article is appropriate.

Rape: A Racial Issue

Rape, however, is also an issue of race and racism. Although rape victims are generally disbelieved, race provides important context to this subject. Historically, any black man accused of raping a white woman -- or even flirting with a white woman -- was considered guilty and subject to death -- either "lawfully" or by lynch mob. By contrast, women of color were deemed to consent to sex with any man. They were by law in some states lawfully available for intercourse with impunity.

An examination of death penalty statistics bolsters this observation regarding the relevance of race to rape. Before the Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty for rape in 1977 (in Coker v. Georgia), executions for rape followed a dramatic racial pattern. Over 90% of the men executed for rape were black, and 100% of the victim in these cases were white -- even though most rapes were (and still are) intraracial.

By only focusing attention upon the smaller subset of rapes that involved black defendants and white victims, the larger body of white male rapes of white women went unpunished or at least subject to far less scrutiny. Racism, therefore, helped to reinforce the vulnerability of all women to rape.

Race of the Cleveland, Texas Victim

Although the news media has not revealed the race of the young girl in Cleveland, Texas, it highly likely that she is black. First, rape is primarily intraracial; because most (if not all) of the accused assailants are black, it is likely that the victim is as well.

Furthermore, news of the alleged rape has only become a national story several months after it occurred. If 18 black men were accused of raping a white girl, the story would have probably developed into a national issue months ago.

Finally, the lack of concern for the victim in the New York Times article and in other media reports certainly suggests that the victim is black. The reporting simply follows the historical practice of devaluing black crime victims -- especially victims of rape.

If the victim is in fact white, then the circumstances will have deviated from normal practice. Regardless, it is important for critics to remember that rape is both an issue of gender and race.


The victim could easily be a Latina as well -- with similar results as a black victim.

Furthermore, although this case is receiving late attention, there have been several gang rapes with black and/or disabled victims in recent years. These cases did not receive widespread national headlines.


Milwaukee, 15 males rape 11-year-old black girl in 2006

Chicago, numerous men rape black teen with developmental disabilities in 2010

Atlanta, 20 arrested for raping disabled teen outside of Atlanta in 2000.

Detroit, 5 males rape 11-year-old black girl in 2007 (victim was blamed in this case too)

Update II: ABC News reports that the victim is Latina. Before this news emerged, I had already amended the article to reflect that if the victim were Latina or black, the results would probably look the same. My point about race holds: the victim was not white.


Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

That this case has only gained attention because of the problems with the NY Time article bolsters my argument about the lack of concern for this rape victim.

pkyrileys said...

Darren - What's left to say? You covered it all!

Rape victims are almost always made out to be in some way "responsible" because the crime itself is so deplorable and abhorrent the public wants to blame someone. Blaming the victim is easy anyone one can see she should not have been in that situation - Right? Bad choices lead to bad outcomes - sure. Give me a break. Blaming the men would mean that society has failed to properly socialize these males.
Time to wake up and realize that group behavior can and often grows into violent acts. Women or vulnerable populations like poor or disabled, less educated victims don't make the same sort of safe "choices" older and wiser non-victims make - regardless of the situation. That does not entitle another to abuse or attack them. No single person is so entitled that they have the "right" to assault another person. I do not care if she danced naked on the table - wrong is wrong - her actions do not justify or excuse the group.
It would be just like faulting me if I decided to leave my wallet on a table at a bar and then turned my back on it to talk to a friend. Being careless with my valuables does not make it okay for someone to steal my belongings and certainly never gives a thief the right to commit a crime and steal my purse.

I have to wonder what if it were 18 women on one 11 year-old boy? .....Okay now let's imagine the women are umm- well- White?

Kathy said...

Darren, how do you know that "most (if not all) of the accused assailants are black"? I didn't find that information anywhere in the New York Times article, and I read it twice.

Nell said...


You're right that the NYT article makes no mention of race, but TV coverage has shown the adult perpetrators (ahem...*alleged* perpetrators) and they are all black. The only hint I had in the Times was when one of the interviewees was quoted referring to the neighborhood where the crime took place as "The Quarters" -- that sounded like code-speak for "where the black folks live." The entire body of reportage on this story has been steeped in racism, classism and sexism. It's a massive heap of journalistic FAIL.

What disturbs me most about the Times article is not the victim-blaming (that's so commonplace now as to be totally unremarkable), but the sympathetic way in which these men/boys are treated. "They'll have to live with this for the rest of their lives" and "what could have drawn 'their' boys into such an act." The rapists are humanized and the victim is completely disappeared. I realize the Times needs to protect her identity, but there is not one word of concern for her health and welfare in that article -- only the impact on the community and the "poor boys" is considered.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Kathy: I searched many sources for the story -- and in all the pics, the suspects are black. You are right, however, this was not in the NYT.

Thanks for all of the commentary. Rape, like all violent crimes, is a very terrible for the victims. I am stunned (though I should not be) that the NYT article was so callous towards an 11-year-old victim.

Kathy said...

Okay, thanks, both to Neil and to Darren. It did cross my mind that you might have done some additional research, but I had actually not heard of this crime before reading about it on Memeorandum, and Darren's is the only commentary I've read so far.

Everything you wrote makes total sense -- "the Quarters" does sound like some kind of antiquated term for a part of town where black people live, and also the poverty of the neighborhood is another hint.

I thought the NYT article was outrageously biased, horrifyingly so. I just was curious to know how you knew for sure that the perpetrators were black.

And by the way, that same attitude, about "those boys will have to live with this for the rest of their lives," and how it's going to ruin their lives, etc., is exactly the attitude that was prevalent in the rape of a teenage girl with Down's Syndrome in Glen Ridge, NJ, about 10 years ago, or maybe longer ago. I know a lot about that one because at the time I lived in Montclair, which is right next to Glen Ridge, and I still live near Glen Ridge.

Thank you for clearing up my confusion!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hey, Kathy -- this case reminded me of Glen Ridge as well!

Nell said...


I saw something on ABC News yesterday saying that all the suspects arrested so far are African American and that the victim is Hispanic.

Sorry I don't have a link, but thought you might like to look into it.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Yes -- I updated the post to show that. I had originally argued that even if she were Latina, the results would be the same; they were. Rape is horrible, regardless of the rape of the victim or the assailant. The race issues I am discussing go toward using race to devalue the victims even more. ABC is trying to turn into a war between blacks and Latinos, which is wrongheaded. Thanks for the update!

Nell said...

My first reaction to the ABC News story was disgust at their obvious attempt to pit the race of the victim against that of the suspects. They portrayed the predominantly black community as circling the wagons to protect their own against the Latina victim. "Othering" at its finest.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Nell -- and the use of race by ABC is yet another way to take attention away from the suffering of this child. Instead of examining the multiple ways in which rape victims are devalued in our society (gender, class, disability, race, etc), they are trying to conjure up a small-town race war. It's absolutely amazing.

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