What happened in Rotherham, a large town in northern England, is appalling. For more than a decade, local authorities looked the other way while gangs of men of Pakistani origin “groomed” young girls and then systematically raped and abused them. At least 1,400 — 1,400! — children were sexually exploited. The victims’ stories about their own personal hells of fear, rape, and hopelessness are harrowing and heart-breaking.
One question in this disturbing story is whether fear of being labeled a racist affected how authorities responded to reports of abuse they received. The report that outlines the abuse and the massive failures of those charged with protecting the victims, criticizes the authorities for downplaying the issue of the race and ethnicity of the men who were committing the crimes. Some believe that concerns about being called a racist or being accused of cultural insensitivity prevented the police and council members from actually doing their jobs. (Of course, by not holding the perpetrators of the crimes to the same standards as everyone else, and by not properly acting on the complaints of the victims, the police and council members were in fact engaging in racist behavior.)
Could a Rotherham occur in the United States? It’s hard to believe that a criminal enterprise of such scope and magnitude, with so many child victims, could happen here — but it’s hard to believe it could happen in England, either. The British aren’t fundamentally different from us, and the circumstances that gave rise to the decade of abuse in Rotherham — in particular, the desire to “not upset the apple cart” that caused authorities to turn their heads — could be replicated in America. Our own history is forever marred by instances where townspeople supported, or at least consciously ignored, murderous criminal gangs like the Ku Klux Klan. Whether it is concern about running afoul of those in power, or just following along with the crowd, or trying to avoid being publicly called a racist, prevailing social conventions can be powerful motivators.
An African proverb states that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and Hillary Clinton later wrote a book about that concept. Sometimes, however, villages like Rotherham fail.