Jury selection has begun in a Pittsburgh courtroom for the forthcoming trial of comedian Bill Cosby, who stands accused of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in his Cheltenham home in 2004.
Jurors will travel across the state to hear the case because Judge Steven O’Neill granted a request by Cosby’s legal team to select a jury from outside Montgomery County, the jurisdiction where the alleged crime took place. The jury will likely be sequestered when the trial begins next month. Then, in a case wrought by the cultural land mines of race and gender, celebrity and class, they will decide the fate of an American entertainment icon.
It is a stunning turn of events for a man whose life and career broke racial barriers for the black entertainers who followed him. Now, after emerging as the first African American actor to be featured in an American dramatic TV series, and excelling in film, television and stage during a six-decade career, racial barriers of another kind will shape Cosby’s legacy.
Constand — like many of the 60 accusers who alleged that Cosby sexually assaulted them — is a white woman. And in America, black men accused of sexual crimes against white women have historically faced swift punishment, regardless of their guilt or innocence.
Cosby’s wealth and fame partially insulated him against America’s normal racial rules and enabled him to purchase legal representation that helped him to avoid such treatment. In some ways, he is reminiscent of O.J. Simpson, a famous black man who was acquitted of murder charges in the death of his white wife.
But this is not 1995, when racial tensions flew largely under the radar. This is 2017, a time when resentment of a black president helped to put Donald Trump in the White House and anger at Cosby helped Kevin Steele to become Montgomery County district attorney after promising to prosecute the comedian.
I doubt that we’ll see a repeat of the Simpson case. Rather, we’ll see the kind of racial animus that has historically been leveled at black men accused of raping white women.
We saw that racial anger in a case that yielded an apology from the state of Florida last month. The so-called Groveland Four — Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin — were black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949 near Groveland, Fla. Two of the men were killed before the criminal proceedings against them could be completed. The others were tortured.
A 1921 race riot that began when whites accused a black man named Dick Rowland of raping a white elevator operator resulted in dozens of blacks losing their lives, and the Greenwood District, a well-to-do black neighborhood in downtown Tulsa, Okla., was destroyed.
Against that historical backdrop of lynching and mutilation, kangaroo courts and tainted justice, the Cosby trial will take place, and America will watch while pretending race is not a factor.
In truth, though, race is always relevant in America. It’s painfully evident in centuries of racist propaganda concerning black men and white women.
The 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, depicted black men as rapists and the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes who defended white women against them. The brilliant novel-turned-movie, To Kill A Mockingbird, effectively described the white hysteria behind rape accusations that cost black men their lives.
Still, Cosby’s case is complex. Though he will stand trial for one accusation in a court of law, he’s facing dozens of allegations in the public sphere, and all the stories sound alike.
Autumn Burns, Janice Baker Kinney and Marcella Tate said Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them in separate incidents. Barbara Bowman, Janice Dickinson, Rebecca Lynn Neal and dozens of others made strikingly similar allegations.
If Cosby is found guilty in the criminal case brought by Constand, each of those women should feel vindicated, and Cosby should be sentenced.
But even if that happens, we can’t pretend that justice is equal in such cases. Equal justice would require us to punish Roman Polanski, who fled to Paris after he pleaded guilty to statutory rape of a minor and continues to walk free while garnering Oscar nominations. We would also have to drag Woody Allen across the public square, since he was accused, but never charged, with sexually assaulting his then-7-year-old daughter, Dylan.
We would have to question Trump, who was not only sued after he was accused of raping a 13-year-old, but also bragged about behavior that is tantamount to sexual assault in a taped conversation with entertainment host Billy Bush. Trump was elected president just months after that video became public.
However, if a jury of convicts Cosby, it would mean that famous men could finally be held accountable for criminal sexual behavior.
Unfortunately, it would also indicate that accountability for famous men applies mainly to those who are black.
Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).
On Twitter: @solomonjones1