The gruesome gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas, that made national headlines last March is back in the news again, reigniting debates about the role of sexism in sex crimes against girls and women.
You may recall the case in which 18 black men between the ages of 14 and 27 were arrested for allegedly gang-raping an 11-year-old Hispanic girl in November of 2010, right after Thanksgiving. The incident, which devastated the small town, went national when 16 men were arrested for the crime. Subsequently, two additional men were arrested.
The Liberty County District Attorney's Office alleges that 19-year-old Timothy Ellis lured the girl out of her home by asking if she wanted to go "riding around." Instead, Ellis is accused of taking her to an empty trailer, where he forced her to strip under threat of violence and several men allegedly raped her. Local authorities became aware of the horrific crime when cellphone video of the attack surfaced at a local school.
A pretrial hearing was held on March 5, 2012, and on March 15, a judge issued a a gag order barring investigators, attorneys and witnesses from discussing any information about the case with news organizations to prevent publicity that could influence the jury.
James C. McKinley Jr. of the New York Times was lambasted for publishing an account of the story on March 8, 2011, in which he quoted neighbors who said that the girl "appeared older than her age" and wore makeup and clothing inappropriate for her age. One of the neighbors asked, "Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?"
Interestingly enough, Anita Ellis Hancock, the mother of alleged ringleader Timothy Ellis, said the same thing in an interview with Fox 26. Hancock stated, "I'm not defending no child because if it were my child, I would feel the same way. My point is, where was her mother?"
How ironic is it that a mother whose child is being charged as the alleged ringleader of this horrendous crime is asking about the mother of the girl? It is clear that Hancock did not have the same expectation for herself that she had for the proverbial "mother" who should have been protecting the 11-year-old girl. Just who was supposed to be protecting or teaching Hancock's son? I suppose "the father," who somehow manages to escape blame or responsibility when sex crimes happen to women.
This type of gendered response is not unusual but is often the status quo, as is the need to figure out what the girl was doing or wearing to cause herself to be put in harm's way. It is infuriating that deliberate measures like gag orders are put in place to protect the right of the accused from being prejudged, while an 11-year-old is prejudged based on her gender without protection from anyone, including Hancock, who is not only a woman but also a mother.
Questions like "Where was the mother?" — as if the father or lack of a male parental figure has no bearing on the behavioral outcomes of children — serve as a cultural shorthand that revictimizes girls and women who dare to speak about crimes of this nature.
Sexism functions in society in the same perverted way as does racism: Blaming the victim is a mechanism to shift the focus away from the actual issue, which is the rape of a child. Further, suggesting that this event might have been avoided had a good mother been around again codes women as incompetent and unable to care for themselves or their children when something terrible happens to their children — especially female children.
Why are black women questioning the girl and the mother? When you occupy two marginal positions, one identity typically trumps the other. Instead of raging against their sons for participating in such a vile act, they rage against a young girl and in turn become complicit in the very behavior that victimizes women.
For black women, by virtue of being black and female, the necessity of battling racism means that sexism will often be overlooked or tabled, even when it is to their detriment. This type of sexist behavior is completely unacceptable, even when coming from women.
Because we have a justice system that can be overzealous in its pursuit of black boys and men as criminals, some are championing the rights of the boys and men over the rights of this little girl, who deserves at least the same level of protection and support. While the Cleveland community is screaming bloody murder over the arrest of so many black boys and men at one time, a young girl's life has also been destroyed, and there have been no rallies or press conferences to address that fact.
Unfortunately, what happened to this little girl is not exceptional. On March 23, nine suspected gang members (True Blood 22) were charged in a sexual attack on a 14-year-old girl who was lured to an abandoned house in St. Paul, Minn. The attack occurred last November, but arrests were just made. Four of the alleged assailants range in age from 15 to 37.
On Thursday an 18-year-old Ukrainian woman died after being gang-raped, strangled, burned alive and left for dead by three men in Kiev.
Both cases in the U.S. are eerily similar: Crimes occurred during the same time of year, involved luring an underage girl to an abandoned property, repeated rape by minority males (Asian boys and men in the St. Paul case) and nearly four months from the date of the crime to the first arrest.
The victim of the St. Paul incident is described as "having done everything she could to stop the crime," as if to suggest that other rape victims go along with the program. Houston community activist Quanell X accused the 11-year-old girl in the Texas case of not doing enough to stop the alleged incident. Perhaps he forgot that she was 11, alone and facing two dozen attackers.
What person, regardless of gender, is not going to fight back if he or she can when faced with rape? The continued assassination of this young girl's character is sexism rearing its ugly head and speaks volumes about how young girls are treated by communities that are fixated on racism yet indifferent to sexism.
While many may ask, "Where is the mother," I will simply ask, "Where is the justice?"
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.