Why the black community can’t stay neutral on Bill Cosby

It’s not the moment to suspend judgement.
It’s not the moment to suspend judgement.
Image: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
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This past week marked a poignant convergence of vying media narratives that brought to the surface two conflicting impulses within the black community. At a moment when young women have figured prominently in the organized protest of the police killing of a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, we watched one of the most renowned and beloved black men in the country fall from grace because of his alleged attacks on women. As the nation held its collective breath waiting for a grand jury verdict in the August shooting of Mike Brown, prominent members of the black community came to the defense of Bill Cosby despite mounting allegations of his drugging and raping more than a dozen women over a four-decade span. In the wake of a heated summer defined by violence against black men and women alike, we find ourselves yet again invoking a long tradition of denying the suffering of one while loudly protesting the other.

If the police slayings of Eric Garner and Mike Brown reminded us of the everyday threats that black men face on American streets, the concurrent discussion of football player Ray Rice’s assault on his wife Janay made it clear that violence against women takes a backseat in terms of community concerns. High-profile commentators like Stephen A. Smith seemed to fault Janay for her husband’s attack that knocked her unconscious while laying blame for the deaths of Garner and Brown squarely on the perpetrators of the violence that led to their deaths. The clear message in all of these stories: defend the reputation and lives of black men, even at the cost of black women.

Of course, Bill Cosby’s alleged victims aren’t all black women, but the response from black men (and women) reflect an intense cultural suspicion of rape as a rhetorical weapon that has been levied against black progress. Since tropes of brutish black men raping white women have literally led to the devastation of entire black communities, rape has taken on a somewhat mythic form that extends beyond a larger societal culture of victim blaming and shaming. When CNN anchor Don Lemon asked alleged victim 64-year old Joan Tarshis why she had not used her teeth “as a weapon” if she had been forced by Cosby to participate in oral sex, we are given insight into the particular kind of racialized skepticism that black women survivors endure. On the View, Whoopi Goldberg said she “had a lot of questions” about one of the victims’ story. Famed saxophonist Tony Williams said that accusations about Bill Cosby being a rapist were a lie from “folks looking for positive notoriety” and on Twitter comedian Faizon Love wrote that he “questioned these h*es motives.” A debate on News One expressed concern about the “sullying of his reputation.” In the defense of Cosby within the black community, too many women survivors are able to see the denunciation of their pain. While Ferguson is a testament to the labor of black women on behalf of black men, Cosby is proof of their exclusions.

The extensive history of false rape accusations against black men has led to a silencing around sexual assault in the black community. While significant to the developing civil rights movements, black women’s anti-rape activism throughout the late 19th century and 20th century targeted the largely unpunished attacks they experienced at the hands of white men. Accusing black men meant risking their lives in an unjust legal system and seemed to be a betrayal, especially in a society that rarely highlights positive images of black men. Reporting rape could lend credence to the stereotype of the hypersexual black man and possibly meant stripping a black family of a patriarch society said was necessary. And so today, though studies suggest that over black women are slightly more likely to experience sexual assault (and typically at the hands of a black man), they are three times less likely than their white female peers to report the crime.

This silence became a tradition and a norm. Dominating women became a right of black male patriarchy, a twisted symbol of black men’s insubordination and resistance against oppression. During the civil rights movement, radical activists across the world read and revered Soul on Ice, a book written by black Panther Eldridge Cleaver that boldly celebrated rape as a revolutionary tool. Reverend James Bevel, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and famed civil rights leader, would be convicted of raping his own daughters many years after King’s death. Despite admitting to violating at least one of his children, Bevel argued that the charges levied against him represented a “plo[t] to destroy [his] reputation.” A history of sexual harassment did not keep Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from becoming one of the most powerful men in the country. In 2004, the NAACP nominated R. Kelly for an Image award while he was awaiting trial for charges related to allegedly having sex with an underage girl. And when boxer Mike Tyson was convicted of raping a beauty pageant contestant in 1991, the largest black Christian denomination in the country raised money for his defense and black nationalist leader Louis Farrakhan blamed the women for tempting Tyson. “How many times, sisters” he asked, “have you said ‘no’ and meant ‘yes’?”

And so when all evidence points to the likelihood that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist, too many people in the black community express doubt about the testimonies of 15 women (and counting). In this way, these spaces of resistance and community have never been places where black women can really get free—not the civil rights movement, not the pulpits that too often place male pastors on literal thrones, and not in the privacy and safety of their own homes. A football player’s attempt to rape his wife in September received little attention, but the bullet-torn body of Mike Brown triggered a national movement.

Rape apologists in the black community pretend that “staying neutral” on Bill Cosby isn’t so very much like “staying neutral” on Darren Wilson. And while young black women continue to put their lives and bodies on the lines protesting the loss of a black man’s life, it has become clear that when it comes to defending the safety and dignity of women’s bodies, black men can scarcely be expected to return the favor. Protecting women is a priority as long as it doesn’t undermine the fragile patriarchy of black men. The denial of women’s suffering becomes the cost of black fraternity, and this invisibility represents a community’s own self-destruction—it is a snake eating its own tail.