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By Mark Anthony Neal

Sunday, March 13, 2011.

The story of an 11-year-old girl, who was purportedly raped by nearly two dozen men and boys is beyond heartbreaking. As the father of two girls and the friend and “brother” of far too many rape survivors, I can’t even begin to imagine the trauma that the girl and her family are experiencing. But the New York Times’ coverage of case directs another round of violence at the girl, embracing a narrative of the story that places the onus on the very victim of the rape.

18 men and boys have been officially charged in the rape the 11-year-old girl in an abandoned trailer home. The police investigation of the case was aided by the fact that some of the accused boys and men took pictures and videotaped the attack on the girl with their cell phones.

The case seems clear cut; there is no legal context in which an 11-year-old child can have consensual sex. If any of those boys or men penetrated the girl with their penises, a gang rape occurred. Yet New York Times reporter James C. McKinley, Jr. , who is the Houston bureau chief for the newspaper, chose to present a narrative that consistently suggested some culpability by the girl in the attacks on her.

McKinley’s mistake was to invest in community narratives, largely constructed around protecting the reputation of the town, Cleveland, TX and the images of the accused boys and men—virtually all African-American. How else can you explain why early in the article McKinley paraphrases town residents who wonder “how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?” as if the victim was some kind of professional sex worker.

Throughout, McKinley quotes residents lamenting how the charges will affect the future prospects of the suspects and devotes an entire paragraph to a resident who questions where the girl’s parents were. In other portions of the article McKinley gives voice—credence really—to residents who claimed that the girl “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s” and that “she would hang out with teenage boys at a playground” as if either point is justification for rape. That McKinley, the New York Times and those town residents that were quoted should know better, seems beyond the point.

I suspect that McKinley was trying to be racially sensitive to the African-American community in Cleveland, Texas particularly given historical narratives that depict Black men as habitual rapists—the Scottsboro Boys immediately come to mind. But in his haste to be politically correct, the integrity of the 11-year-old girl was sacrificed. In the hierarchies of race and ethnicity that this nation continues to reproduce, an 11-year-old Hispanic girl was deemed expendable, as is often the case with young Black girls in such cases.

The politics of race and ethnicity will likely obscure the real issue at hand in the New York Times' coverage of the case: we continue to live in a nation that encourages rape, even sanctions it—what some rightly call a rape culture—because we are fundamentally unwilling to invoke the language that correctly captures the brutality of such acts. A rape is a rape—not an act of sexual violence, not a forced sex act, not a misunderstanding. If our major corporate media outlets are unwilling to call rape by its name, than how can we expect our children to know what rape is?

On the way home this evening, I had a difficult conversation with my 12-year-old daughter about this case, and like so many of these conversations, much of it centered on the responsibility she will have to take to protect herself in a rape culture. Sadly, I suspect that if she has children of her own, the conversation will not have changed much.

With thanks to New Black Man.


Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press). He is the host of the weekly webcast, Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University.

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