When Bill Cosby was convicted of three counts of sexual assault in a retrial, it exposed deep divisions in the black community that have long simmered beneath the surface.
Like most groups, African Americans are divided along the fault lines of age and class, education and gender. But the Cosby retrial has served as the catalyst that has shaken us to our core.
As a result, I’ve witnessed the black community having an intra-racial conversation that is rare in its candor — yet also filled with a rancor that threatens to divide us at a time we need unity.
In discussing the Cosby case across social media and beyond, some black women have demanded that black men acknowledge their male privilege. Conversely, some black men have blamed the rise of feminism for Cosby’s conviction. The result is a community that is fighting itself, even as the larger society attacks us in every conceivable venue — from golf courses to the voting booth. In my view, the black infighting over the Cosby case must stop, because a house divided against itself cannot stand.
But the complexities of this case demand a robust discussion. Tim Golden, a lawyer and critical race theorist with a doctorate in philosophy, understands that stark truth.
“I believe that both race and gender, along with problematic legal rules, led to Bill Cosby’s conviction,” Golden told me. “We ought to remember that between the first trial, which resulted in a hung jury, and the second trial, which resulted in his conviction, was the influence of the #MeToo movement, which occurs in response to sexual assault allegations against a number of powerful and influential men, who, incidentally, are white. This created tremendous public pressure to convict Cosby, a black man, who was seen as the paradigmatic ‘male predator,’ which is consistent with a certain stereotypical depiction of the black male as penis-driven and hyper-sexual.”
As for me, I believe Cosby is guilty, and it breaks my heart, because years ago, in a brief interaction, Cosby introduced me to an editor at Essence magazine, thus opening the door to a professional relationship that led to me penning several articles in a national publication that, ironically, is targeted to black women.
Now black women are split on their views of Cosby. Younger black women argue that in a system where race has always served as a reliable predictor of criminal justice outcomes, race is not a factor in this case. Older women question the morality of the accusers who visited a married man’s home.
And in between the feelings and the facts lies the reality that while 15 of Cosby’s victims were women of color, the discussion has centered on Cosby’s other accusers, because the vast majority of them are white.
Roxanne Jones, a former Inquirer editor and current writer for CNN, has followed the Cosby case for years, and as a black woman, she has always had a firm opinion of the case.
“I said from the first trial that I thought he was guilty,” Jones told me in a radio interview. “And again, like one of the jurors said, I came to that conclusion because I read the deposition thoroughly — the first deposition in the Constand civil suit — and read Bill Cosby’s own words. And so it didn’t matter if it was the one woman, Constand, to me, or the five women who took the stand. He admitted himself that he gave Quaaludes to women in order to have sex. …
“And I couldn’t really understand why people were … thinking race was a bigger part of this trial than Cosby raping women and saying that he used drugs to have sex with women. Because although race is prevalent in anything we do — whether we’re playing golf, trying to get coffee at Starbucks, whatever we do, we know that, so I don’t discount that at all. But that should never be an excuse for assaulting women, for committing crimes against women, just for criminal behavior. That can’t be an excuse for it. And that can’t mean that we’re always innocent because the justice system is racist. It just can’t mean that.”
Jones is right, of course. But so is Golden, who says it’s wrong for any of us — especially those in the black community — to oversimplify the Cosby case by making it just about sexual violence against women, or by making it just about race. It is, in his view, about both of these things.
“The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras once argued that two people can look at the same thing, call it something different, and that both of them could be right,” Golden explains. “So it is that we can look at the Cosby trial and say that it is about sexual violence against women, and we can look at it and say that it is about racial violence against black men.”
And both views can be right.