In the three weeks since the New York Times  broke the story  of a child’s rape there, the events in Cleveland, Texas, have morphed into a category-five media storm. The Times piece, which echoed and amplified currents of victim-blaming in the town, generated a tide of criticism. Yet beneath the outrage was a parable of modern media. Aside from the familiar and incendiary themes it contained, the Times article seemed an object lesson in what happens when cash-strapped newspapers parachute a reporter into a complex situation hoping for coverage on the cheap. In-depth coverage requires resources and the time to do the deliberate, painstaking gathering of facts that were in short supply in James McKinley’s article. “The New York Times,” as one friend put it, “can no longer afford nuance.”
Add to that equation the fact that Twitter-orchestrated protests, web petitions and Facebook posts pushed the Times to apologize (or at least come close to it), and our understanding of the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl becomes yet another front in the battles between old and new media. Even the way the assault became public knowledge—digital images traded around on cellphones—seems to be part of the narrative of modern technology and information.
Yet for all this modernity, the most troubling aspect of the ongoing fallout from Cleveland is the way it resurrects themes of race, sexual violence and provincialism long interred in American history. Some weeks ago I taught students in my civil rights history class about the plague of lynching, which claimed the lives of more than 3,000 African-Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beyond the horror of the organized murder of black citizens, students were most troubled by the recreational nature of it all: the images of smiling white citizens, fathers and sons, upstanding Christians gathered in fellowship around the smoldering ruin of a black body—all preserved on postcards.
If you asked any of these people in the abstract if it is right to hang a person, set him on fire and then riddle the body with bullets, they would likely have called those actions illegal and sinful. But there is an asterisk: unless that person was black; unless he had demanded his wages, or been to slow to vacate a sidewalk when a white person walked by, or been “unpopular” (these are all actual reasons cited for lynching). These are actions of people who have been given a moral escape clause, an asterisk in which upstanding Christians can sate the demonic appetites of their collective id. Thus an act of abomination becomes a moment worthy of commemorating with a photograph.
I thought about that discussion of lynching again as news spread that the alleged perpetrators were so utterly secure in the righteousness of their act that some of them snapped pictures or recorded footage on their cell phones. We have, in 2011, reached a point when the public display of charred human remains is no longer acceptable. But the response of some of the citizens of Cleveland, Texas, to this horrific assault has brought us face to face with a kind of gender Jim Crow. Here the asterisk is not failure to conform to racial etiquette but the lax adherence to an equally stringent gender code, one where “innocent” is a relative concept and rape, like lynching, can be elevated nearly to the level of civic responsibility.
The rape, which allegedly took place in a filthy trailer, has been mitigated by qualifiers on the child’s innocence—and necessarily, the guilt of the accused. It is, as an abstract idea, wrong to force a preteen child to have sex with a dozen and a half men. Unless she was “fast,” or dressed like a much older woman, or had slack maternal supervision. Add enough exceptions and even the unconscionable begins to look like a six-in-one-hand undertaking. It is the bitterest of ironies that African-Americans in Cleveland have been the most vocal proponents of this warped ideal. We of all people should understand how the moral exception game works. (For those who believe the fact that the girl is Hispanic has colored the responses to the crime, rest assured, “fast” 11-year-old black girls are seen as every bit as disposable within the black community.)
It is worth remembering that in the age of lynching, as now, new media technology served as a kind of antiseptic, airing rancid behavior in forums much larger than the moral echo chambers of Deep South counties. Southerners were, on some level, stunned by the national firestorm that the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till created. They were incapable of understanding why a single murder of a black man—an act that had been Southern business as usual for decades—unleashed torrents of criticism and outrage nationwide. The behavior was the same, but exposing it on television created a completely new dynamic. In the face of this new circumstance, Southerners retrenched and expanded their contempt to include media and all other such “outside agitators.” They excavated the Confederate flag and elevated it to a place of honor as a symbol of their recalcitrance.
Among the bitterest ironies in a situation filled with them is that the tradition of lynching is, on some level, connected to the victim-blaming and asterisk-brandishing afoot in Cleveland, Texas. The wrongful convictions and killings of black men for bogus charges of sexual assault remain deeply placed in the historical memory of many black communities. And anyone who knows of the Scottsboro trial, the Central Park jogger case or Tulia, Texas, where forty African-Americans were arrested on false drug charges, is necessarily skeptical of mass arrests involving African-Americans—especially those involving sex crimes. But history cannot absolve what is voiced in Cleveland now, a nightmare cliché born of those lynching galleries: the victim had it coming.
It’s likely that the feelings of some residents of Cleveland are a curious echo of what those Southern partisans of a bygone era felt. Rancid behavior in their town—and more important, the values that undergird it—has been given a national airing. Outside agitators have assailed their views—140 characters at a time. But would that these kinds of views were confined to a small outpost in East Texas. None of us who saw fans rally around R. Kelly during his pedophilia trial or heard the bullshit rationales given for Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna could feel secure in pointing a judgmental finger at Cleveland, Texas. Gender Jim Crow is a national concern.
We have yet to appreciate that in Texas and beyond—whether we are talking about murder or rape or any of the myriad violations of human dignity that happen every day in communities across this country—there are no asterisks, only excuses. And sorry ones at that.