Since the inception of our legal system, law has defined race and race has defined law. For example, early cases or statutes defined race whether by drop of blood (Virginia law setting forth definition of black by # of drops of blood from black ancestors), phenotype (In re Hassan (finding that an Arab litigant not white because he was too darkly complected); Hudgins v. Wright (evaluating whether litigant was Indian from her complexion, hair, and nose)), culture (In re Balsara (finding that an Asian Indian was white because litigant was exceptionally intelligent)), and/or societal understandings of race (In re Ah Yup (Chinese applicant denied citizenship because “white” has a settled meaning which does not include Chinese)).
Race has also defined law. (See, e.g, Criminalization of drugs to incarcerate people of color; Dred Scott (defining citizenship by race).)
Typically, when a black man is charged with rape-especially of a white women–historical stereotypes of hypersexual animalistic black men are evoked. I am not 100% sure that this is happening in Cosby’s case, and it certainly did not happen until his damning depo was released.
I am trying to process the racial issues in Bill Cosby’s case. How has or is race informing the decision to charge him, the media coverage of the accusations, and the public’s opinion of his guilt?
Bill Cosby transcended the stereotypes of black men in America. “Heathcliff Huxtable” was an educated professional, by all means an excellent and present father, and a doting husband. In real life, Bill Cosby espoused (what is demonstrably inaccurate and racist) rhetoric about how stereotypes of black absent an incarcerated fathers and unwed young pregnant uneducated black women were true. He called black people to defy these untrue assassinations, while also failing to acknowledge any social forces that have shaped black life in America. Such bullshit only further cemented the public perception of Cosby as a model minority.
Most believe that the accusations against Cosby demonstrate hypocrisy write large. Though true, I am more interested in whether his model minority status transcended the racism in our criminal justice system. Of course, his wealth and power played a huge role in his experience as it always does. But, what role has or will America’s belief that he is a model minority play in all of this?
Would the rape complainants have come forward earlier if Bill Cosby was not a model minority; what if he had a criminal record? Would law enforcement have stuck with their usual inherent racist beliefs about the propensity of black men to commit rape had Bill Cosby not been a model minority? To ask the questions are to answer them.
I suspect that even if Bill Cosby’s wealth and power played a factor in police and the public’s disbelief of the accusations, Cosby’s model minority status cemented his protection from the wrath of the criminal justice system. And, it informed everyone’s belief about the legitimacy of the accusations against him. Indeed, many professional athletes–just as famous and just as wealthy–have not escaped criminal liability and certainly not from accusations of rape by multiple women rape.
So what does it matter if his model minority status has protected him? The problem with protection from criminal liability because one is the “perfect” black person is one that plagues our criminal justice system. It is the same problem that leads to cops walking away scott free from murdering black people. It is the same problem that leads to a disproportionate people of color in our jails and prisons, with longer sentences than others. And, Bill Cosby is partially responsible for that problem.
By affirming stereotypes about black people, Bill Cosby has reinforced societal beliefs that black people are the only ones who are responsible for their murders at the hands of police, the only ones to blame for finding themselves caught up in the criminal justice system, and solely responsible for being locked away for years longer than others.
Bill Cosby made many racist beliefs appear to be legitimate by endorsing them, such as that black people: 1) don’t take responsibility for their actions; 2) are willfully under educated; 3) willfully unemployed; 4) willfully poor; 5) willfully dependent on the state; and 6) willfully responsible for the injustice perpetrated upon them in our society. If only black people achieved what he had, through hard work and wherewithal, they would not experience these injustices. They alone, and not racism, discrimination, nor structural or institutional inequality, are responsible for their place in life.
I refuse to believe it is a coincidence that everyone believed that Bill Cosby was a model minority and that no one believed he would commit these crimes until faces with overwhelming evidence. Put another way, had Bill Cosby been a black man with a criminal record, wealthy and powerful or not, police and the public would have believed that the first accusation–which would have come much earlier–was true.
This is so not just because people tend to believe that a criminal once is a criminal twice. Rather, it is because people afford the presumption of innocence only to those people whom they think deserve it see e.g. a cop. And, intentionally or not, our society does not find most black people deserving of the presumption of innocence (See, e.g. SL Johnson, “Black Innocence and the White Jury” http://www.jstor.org/stable/1288969?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents).
Only when the public has proof (read: damning depo admissions) of a person’s potential guilt will their opinion move from the presumption that the person is innocent to a suspicion of guilt. Our system is supposed to work this way: the presumption of innocence should be eroded only in the face of proof of guilt. But, it is not how it works for almost every person of color in this country. Unless, that person had very publicly denounced the prevalence of racism in our society, legitimizes the modern form of white racism (read: colorblindness), and convinces the public that he is perfect.
I will not take a stance on Bill Cosby’s guilt or innocence except to say the depo is damning–at the very least creating an appearance of culpability.
But, I will take the stance that he has powerfully assured white America that their racist and stereotypical beliefs about black people are valid. Which ultimately perpetuates the injustice in our criminal system from the murder of black men by police to implicit biases held among jurors to the over-incarceration and demonization of black persons in this Country.
He did not create the problem, but he has used wealth, power, and his public platform to make it persist. And, the lesson learned is if you want true power in our society, you must take a dishonest or, at best, ill informed stance on racial justice issues in this country.