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Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby Doesn't Deserve Our Black Tears

It's time for the people still clinging to the comedian despite dozens of sexual assault allegations to let go.

Wilbert L. Cooper

Wilbert L. Cooper

There are a whole lot of brothers out there who still see Bill Cosby as a victim. I know, because I hear from these guys in barbershops, in line at the bodega, and even at family gatherings. They hold on to their exalted view of the man who "redefined blackness" in spite of the more than 60 women who have come forward to accuse Cosby of sexually assaulting them. They cling to "America's Favorite Dad," even though the comedian admitted to keeping Quaaludes to help him get laid. And now, as the criminal trial for Cosby's alleged sexual assault of Andrea Constand comes to a close, those who doubt that the man who used to sling Puddin' Pops could have also been an extremely prolific date rapist seem more convinced than ever that this entire sordid ordeal is just another example of white America tearing down strong black men.

We've seen this play out on social media, from fashion and music icon Kanye West tweeting early last year that "BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!" to author and filmmaker Tariq Nasheed going full Hotep last week, informing his more than 180,000 Twitter followers that the allegations are really a "white supremacist witch hunt."

Simple misogyny is the connecting tissue between most Cosby apologists. It's the reason they can't understand why a woman might not want to come forward with sexual assault allegations against a famous and beloved millionaire with endless legal resources and goodwill, and it's why they don't get that having your way with someone who is incapacitated and can't consent is illegal and incredibly fucked up. But as a black man, the notion that there might be a conspiracy that is "trying to bring the black man down" is something that—even as I absolutely reject it in Cosby's case—I can certainly understand.

As one of Cosby's accusers, black poet Jewel Allison, put it in an editorial for the Washington Post, Cosby was for a long time the "image of success" for many black American men, his signature character a "model for self-worth and manhood" in a nation that has gone to incredible, outrageous lengths to vilify and dehumanize us. There is a long list of strong, culturally vital black men in entertainment like Paul Robeson and Muhammad Ali who were scorned for their politics and their success and were essentially blacklisted because of the emboldening impact they had on black people.

So Cosby supporters aren't crazy to think that America gets its rocks off dragging strong black men through the mud, because it does. The problem is that Cosby is not one of those strong black men. He has never been a true champion of oppressed black people, because he sees the suffering that we face as a result of our own personal failings, not institutional racism.

It should go without saying that The Cosby Show was revolutionary in its day, with Cosby famously insisting on positive portrayals of black family life. Unfortunately, the wealthy Huxtables seemed to exist in a rarefied bubble that was not reflective of the broader black experience. While episodes of The Cosby Show gave honorary mention to civil rights moments and black heritage, the family almost never grappled with actual racism. Which is weird considering that even today's black One Percent have to endure straight-up racist shit, like LeBron James did last month, when the word "nigger" was scrawled across the front gate of his Los Angeles home.

By obscuring the the way racism impacts all aspects of black American life, Cosby helped feed into the troublesome narrative that racism doesn't exist or that we might live in a post-racial society. One listen to his infamous "Pound Cake" speech—Cosby's notorious lecture to black America on its own social and economic failings—makes it clear that his politics are not in sync with our great black leaders. Not Malcolm, not Martin, and not even middle-of-the-road Obama. Because none of those men would ever punch down at their own people as harshly and routinely as Cosby's done throughout his career. Instead of attacking white supremacy, Cosby's stringent respectability politics have, I think, actually helped to justify inequality.

Collage by Lia Kantrowitz

Of course, some people remain skeptical of the allegations simply because of what many of Cosby's accusers look like.

In the ongoing criminal trial, Cosby has maintained that his sexual interactions with Constand were consensual. While he certainly has been accused of sexual assault by women of color—among them outspoken visual artist Lili Bernard—Constand is white, and some defenders mistakenly believe that is the case of virtually all of his accusers. This was on display in Nasheed's tweet last week, which misleadingly suggested the cover of the excellent New York Magazine feature focused on the Cosby Women only featured whites to help fuel the "white supremacist witch hunt." (In truth, the issue featured multiple women of color who claim to have been sexually assaulted by Cosby.)

Cosby's narrative here—that he's a black man who had sex with a large number of white women only to face incredible blowback—touches a nerve for many black men in America. After all, this is a country where consensual sex between black men and white women could land a couple in prison or lynched by an angry mob just a few decades ago. This fact is a reflection of America's long-held obsession with the sexual "purity" of white women, which has always been a direct extension of violent patriarchy and racism disguised as chivalry.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the black woman whose investigative journalism helped expose the terror of white mobs lynching blacks after the Civil War, was one of the first to pick up on this American tradition. "To palliate this record… and excuse some of the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of a country," she wrote in the iconic Southern Horrors pamphlet in 1892, "the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women."

In the past century, we've seen accusations that a black man sexually assaulted a white woman as the catalyst for numerous bouts of terrorism. This brand of racialized rape allegations helped spark the Tulsa race riot of 1921 and the Rosewood massacre of 1923—both of which culminated with white mobs committing acts of arson, looting, and murder on black communities. Even teenager Emmett Till's brutal murder in 1955, now widely seen as a key flashpoint in the civil rights movement, was the product of a white woman's lie that he had flirtatiously whistled at her.

This obsession with black men raping white women still lingers on the far right, inspiring inaccurate internet memes and occasional violence. Before Dylann Roof mowed down nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, he told them, "You rape our women, and you're taking over our country, and you have to go." And while we live in a time when white terrorism motivated by accusations of sex between black men and white women isn't nearly as routine as it was once was, the American justice system has replaced the lynch mobs of yesterday, or at least picked up some of the slack.

According to decades of National Registry of Exonerations data, 59 percent of people exonerated after being convicted of sexual assault cases are black, even as blacks make up only 13 percent of the overall population. High-profile instances of this, like the case of the Central Park Five, don't fully capture what most men of color instinctively know: That while false accusations of rape are incredibly rare, if you are wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a white woman, you have to fight against more than lies in the courtroom—you have to fight against white supremacy.

As unfortunate as this reality is for black men across America, it has absolutely nothing to do with Cosby. The comedian isn't some poor black kid who couldn't afford a defense attorney and got coerced into confessing to a crime he didn't commit. He is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and commanded a tremendous amount of power across the country, from Hollywood to the business world to prominent universities—and it looks like he's used that immense wealth and power to systematically attack and abuse women. In fact, several women have pointed to his fame and money as the key reason they didn't make their allegations public before the statute of limitations ended.

But the worst thing about the black men out there still clinging to Cosby is that focusing on the fact that many of his accusers are white willfully ignores the suffering of his black accusers, sisters who we all should care about. At the end of the day, no women should have to be sacrificed for this man's legacy to live on unscathed. Whatever his symbolic importance is for black America, it should never outweigh the actual black lives he might have hurt. Allowing that to happen will only have a silencing effect on people who have been assaulted or abused by people like him.

America is still incredibly fucked up, obviously. Racism is inescapable in the criminal justice system, even when it comes to Cosby. If he were white and a few years younger, instead of facing some time, Cosby might be eyeing a presidential bid, because that's the kind of batshit stuff that happens in this country. But if he does actually get convicted and has to spend the last years of his life behind bars, I won't be crying for him, and you shouldn't either. Bill Cosby simply does not deserve our adoration, protection, or far-flung conspiracy theories. He's not worthy of our black tears.

Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter.