When Neutrality Fails

A recent story in the New York Times provoked outrage for seeming to imply that an eleven year old girl who was allegedly gang-raped by a group of 18 young men and teenage boys in some sense deserved what happened to her, and that sympathy for the accused was in some sense appropriate. Apparently the Times received so many complaints about the story that it ran a story about the story. But the problem here is that we haven’t gone nearly meta enough yet.

Let’s assume a certain demographic for the readership of the New York Times: white, prosperous, liberal. What assumptions are primed by such a story? Clearly, the decades of training in “rape awareness,” a training designed to overcome sexist stereotypes about rape as a somehow normal form of mutually enjoyable sexual activity between men and women. Of course, any form of social training creates assumptions and comes with costs. For example, how many people realize that the majority of rape victims are male? How do we even know that the alleged victim is female? Oh, right. We were told. That’s OK.

What’s not OK is to tell the readers that the alleged perpetrators were black and the victim Hispanic. As Alone of Last Psychiatrist says, “That’s what’s missing from this: the black neighbors are outraged that 18 men have been rounded up on basically nothing– no DNA evidence, and the videos don’t show even ten men– and given that they are both poor and black, there is no chance whatsoever of any of them posting bail. That means they’ll be in jail until trial (at least six months) or worse, sentencing, because their terrible public defender conned them into accepting a plea bargain for a crime they didn’t do.” Here too a certain training is being followed and inculcated. Though I couldn’t say off-hand when it began, there is now a wide-spread practice of concealing the race of criminal defendants in journalism, for fear of stoking racial stereotypes about non-whites and crime.

This is ironic, because what apparently happened was that by concealing the race of the accused, white liberal readers seem to have jumped to the conclusion that a bunch of white Southerners who haven’t been properly brought up raped a white girl, and the White Southern community is mostly sympathizing with the boys, having not been educated at Bennington College. And the New York Times, in an astonishing lapse, is not liberal enough about it all.

There is a long history of black men being false accused of rape as an instrument of social control, for example, the Scottsboro boys. But notice what happens to a story like this when sex and gender are taken out of the equation: it becomes the Jena Six story. It’s all a matter of what frame we’re supposed to put around the story.

Here’s what we know about East Texas: it’s a place where a black man can be chained to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged down the road long enough and fast enough to kill him. Here’s what we know about the events in Cleveland, Texas: nothing. But that won’t prevent us from “knowing what we know” and it won’t prevent the New York Times from trying to make us better people. The problem is, when that attempt takes the form of suppressing information to avoid prejudice, it makes stories about prejudice all the harder to tell. Whether this story is about male/female relations, or black/white relations, or black/Hispanic relations remains to be seen (nor are these mutually exclusive). So far, the New York Times seems to think that the story is mostly about the New York Times, and its readers seem to largely agree. But really, the story is about us.

Postscript: if one consults the better reporting of the Houston Chronicle, the story begins to reveal hidden complexities. Apparently the girl in question had been assaulted on three separate occasions over a period of three months (?), as many as twenty-eight (!) individuals may ultimately be charged, and the girl is being held in foster care by child protective services with restricted access not only to media, and to members of the community who wish her harm, but to her own family as well. What they did to warrant this has yet to be stated. Hmm. If where that line of thought seems to lead is right, the arrests may not have been unreasonable, and the Times may have done well to suppress the racial context: this may be about gender after all.

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One comment on “When Neutrality Fails

  1. Samantha X Johnston says:

    Thanks for the AP link via the Chron; I hadn’t read it yet.

    You might be relieved to know that Chron staffer Cindy Horswell’s reporting on 3/7 — http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/headline/metro/7459716.html — addressed in part your concern about the status of the assault: “[i]nvestigators note an 11-year-old can never legally give consent.” She wasn’t the only journo to point this out (thank goodness) and if reporting on reporting interests you take a look at the discussion here: http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/making-sense-of-news/123072/new-york-times-houston-chronicle-frame-story-of-11-year-olds-rape-differently/.

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