Friday, March 18, 2011

Rape, Racism, and the Media

By Shelley Ettinger
Published Mar 17, 2011 9:16 PM

This article is based on a Read Red blog at

The New York Times ran an appalling March 9 story about a gang rape in east Texas that left me sickened and shaken. The victim was an 11-year-old girl. There were, reportedly, 18 rapists. Eighteen! They included some star high-school athletes as well as some sons of locally prominent families. At least one of them videotaped the assault with his cell phone. The video was shown around by the bragging rapists, and that’s how the crime eventually came to light and they were brought to justice.

These facts weren’t the only appalling thing about the Times piece. The story itself descended into the worst despicably sexist terms in its characterization of the child who was so terribly brutalized and defiled. The newspaper found it necessary to comment that she was known in the neighborhood for wearing inappropriately mature clothes and makeup and for hanging out in the wrong places. Yes, that’s right — the report implies that this 11-year-old child was a slut; she was asking for it; she deserved to be destroyed. This aspect of the report was picked up quickly by a number of commentators, who have denounced the Times for its disgusting blame-the-victim insinuations.

But there’s another aspect. After my first read and my first reaction, which was rage and horror, I cooled down a little and started to think, started wondering. I referred above to “facts” — but I know better than to rely on the bourgeois press for the truth. I used the phrase “brought to justice” — but I know there is no justice under capitalism, and especially not in rape cases, not for the victims of sex assault, nor for the young men who might be arrested and charged whether they did it or not. Yes, I’m talking about race: What I started wondering most of all was just who these 18 alleged rapists were. So I did a quick search and found some other, earlier, local articles about this case.

Almost immediately, a series of mug shots appeared on my screen of young African-American men. The victim’s picture of course isn’t available, but I guessed that she too is Black because if she were white we’d have heard much more about this case much sooner; quite possibly we’d have heard about a lynching. Later reports say that the victim is Latina. As it is, knowing that all the alleged rapists are Black makes this a story not only about what we Marxists call the woman question, but also about the national question.

Now reread this from the Times piece: “The video led the police to an abandoned trailer, more evidence, and, eventually, to a roundup over the last month of 18 young men and teenage boys.” A roundup of African-American youths.

The rape of this child was a heinous crime. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that this roundup by the Cleveland, Texas, police, a force made up overwhelmingly of white men, is not another crime — a racist crime. That is, that some of those arrested are innocent, picked up for the crime of being young Black men. And that they’ll be railroaded into prison where they’ll join so many other young Black men locked up for the crime of being poor and oppressed. So now there will be two crimes: that against the child and that against those who had nothing to do with it, but were rounded up.

This is not the Glen Ridge rape. That case was beautifully analyzed in the 1997 book “Our Guys” by Bernard Lefkowitz. In 1989 in Glen Ridge, an affluent white New Jersey suburb, a bunch of star athletes gang-raped a mentally challenged girl — and almost the whole community united to defend and protect them. The victim and her family were made pariahs. The rapists were treated as heroes or, at worst, good guys who made a minor mistake. Not one of them ever served serious time.

Here, in contrast, we have cops rounding up Black youths. If there have been confessions, we have the likelihood that they were coerced. That some of them might be false confessions. That some of those rounded up didn’t do it. This is the United States. There is no way that justice will be done. (Nor do I think that any trials, convictions and imprisonments of those who actually did commit the rape will constitute justice, for none of that will address or redress any of what’s wrong with this society, any of the real causes of these crimes.)

Don’t get me wrong. I remain enraged and shaken about the unspeakable crime that was committed. I can’t stop thinking about the 11-year-old girl and how she’ll manage to survive on into adulthood — if she’ll manage to survive. Both the brutal misogyny of the crime and the sexist reporting of it make me want to scream and shout. But I won’t join the rush to judgment against those accused. Because when Black men are accused of rape, especially in a case like this when so many are accused at once, and in small-town Texas [with a sordid history including the KKK and police brutality — WW] no less, you can be assured that racism too is involved. There is a long history of Black men being made into poster images for rape, whether the victim is Black or white, and of rape charges being used to justify racist violence and scapegoating. This goes back to slavery times and then the Klan and Jim Crow in the terrible lynch-law era. Then there was the Scottsboro case back in the 1930s. And more recently, the case of the Central Park jogger, for which the New York Police Department rounded up a bunch of Black youths who were demonized and caricatured as, basically, animals who had carried out what the media called a “wilding” — and who, despite their protestations of innocence were tried, convicted and imprisoned only to be exonerated years later after losing most of their youth to prison.

I recently read Jeffrey B. Perry’s excellent book on Hubert Harrison, the first of a projected two-part biography of this great Black radical of early 20th-century Harlem. In the book Perry repeatedly returns to the lodestar of Harrison’s political life: the principle (and practical necessity) that fighting racism must be paramount; that as long as white supremacy reigns, there can be no class unity. A socialist revolutionary must always remember this. The Cleveland, Texas, rape case is the latest reminder.

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