A Philadelphia native, I was weaned on Fat Albert cartoons and grew up watching The Cosby Show. Bill Cosby’s face called out from billboards lining the Schuylkill Expressway and announced the greatness and accessibility of Temple University. Bill Cosby’s long and varied career made him a local and national legend. I’ve read with interest the reception his work has received, especially from different individuals and communities of African-Americans in the United States. Professor Mark Anthony Neal’s opinion piece in The Washington Post (6-17-17) provides ample cultural context for what Bill Cosby did and did not achieve in terms of cultural representation of family life and, specifically of black family life, in the United States. Neal declared that Cosby became largely irrelevant once The Cosby Show concluded in 1992 and the concurrent Rodney King decision made even more visible the criminalization and unjust adjudication of black men. In 2015, journalist Roxanne Jones stated that Bill Cosby had “betrayed black community”. Journalist Denise Clay takes Cosby to task in this June 18, 2017, piece in Philadelphia Magazine. In a recent NPR piece, journalist Gene Demby writes: “That’s why it’s worth noting how much the very real political position Cosby himself occupied — the kindly cultural ambassador of Negritude — has become if not entirely outmoded, then at least viewed far more skeptically.”
It is not mine to speak for, against, or in neutral terms about Bill Cosby’s interactions with definitions and interpretations of being black in the United States. No doubt, he already was a controversial figure in this regard in the 1990’s, and his recent increased visibility has heightened the controversy. While it is impossible and not desirable to remove the question of race from Bill Cosby’s case, I am going to focus more on the elements of the Cosby case that emerge from power, especially television star power, and decades of obscene privilege gone unchecked. These alleged actions (and some admitted to in the 2005 deposition; quotes from it at this link) are not unlike the alleged violence perpetrated by the likes of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and other Fox News power players accused of rape, sexual assault, violence, and subsequent cover-up that occurred over decades. (*See this related Gender Shrapnel Blog post from 9-19-16). In fact, The New York Times’ and other newspapers’ editorial decisions to place much of the Cosby trial coverage in their “television” sections speak to the focus on entertainment and the media circus, rather than to the real-life possibility that a person seemed to have developed a pattern of administering powerful drugs to unwitting women and then doing to them whatever he pleased. Editors of respected national dailies have made similar decisions with rape cases surrounding athletic superstars—placing the coverage of the case in the sports section, rather than in sections that typically cover criminal and civil lawsuits. (*See this related Gender Shrapnel blog post from 1-2-17.) The fame and fortune of these alleged criminals help their stories to be reported as more pulp fodder, more Kardashian-esque gossip, more sensationalized rise and fall, and less of an actual criminal case that reveals cruel and predatory patterns of the dehumanization of women over multiple decades.
When there is a single he said-she said account of a single incident, we experience great difficulty in believing the person who makes the accusation and finding against the accused. This somewhat dated (2002) Department of Justice report, titled “Prosecutors’ Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases: A Multi-Site Study, Final Report,” reveals that decisions to charge sexual assault cases do still hinge on perceptions of the accused (more likely to be charged if the person is black) and of the accuser (more likely to succeed in going forward if the person fits the “ideal victim image”, i.e. “pure” or “innocent”), thus striking at the core of race and gender shrapnel. This much more up-to-date 2016 report about prosecution of sexual assault cases in the District of Columbia demonstrates that police officers and prosecutors need better training on collection of evidence, language for interviewing people in sexual assault and rape cases, and shortened processing times and evaluation of so-called rape kits. The system still favors letting sexual assault and rape cases go, appearing at least tacitly to reinforce that rape is just supposed to happen. In this The New York Times piece from June 20, 2017, Susan Chira interviews Jeannie Suk Gersen, who says: “We chose to set up our system to be stacked in favor of the defendant in all cases,” she said. “So, in areas where most of the defendants are male, and most of the accusers are female, it’s a structural bias in favor of males. Even if we were to get rid of sexism, it would still be very hard to win these cases. I think this is what we have to live with on the criminal side, because we’ve made the calculation that this is the right balance of values.”
You would think, though, that if 50 or 60 people told their stories, each story with its own specific context and details, but each contributing to a composite indication of malicious intent to disable people and then to violate them, you might be able to believe the 50 or 60 people who were victims of a pattern of violence and privilege and to act on your belief that they are telling the truth. The pattern was able to establish itself, in fact, because each of the victims over this long stretch believed it impossible to take on the legendary Bill Cosby. A person rendered an object might believe herself less important and less able to tackle an enormously difficult task, that of confronting “America’s dad.”
Take a moment to review the accounts of the now 60 accusers (there were 50 back in 2015), outlined here by The Los Angeles Times (6-17-17). The first woman on this long list must wonder if there would have been fewer (or no more) victims had she been able to go up against Cosby and his star power. In Andrea Constand’s case against Bill Cosby, Cosby is reported (e.g. here) to have claimed to have given Constand an “herbal” pill and later to have told Constand and her mother that it was only Benadryl. Lili Loofbourow in the same opinion piece from The Week, quotes Cosby’s version of the events: “’I don’t hear her say anything. And I don’t feel her say anything,’ Cosby says of the sexual contact. ‘So I continue, and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection. I am not stopped.’” What the hell? You were never looking for either permission or rejection because you had drugged the person so that you could ensure her silence and temporary ignorance of her own situation. Cosby here is trying to co-opt consent language to make the case seem more innocent, but instead confirms the worst—a decades-long pattern of administration of drugs, forceful incapacitation of women, and sexual assault and rape.
The power and privilege of Bill Cosby, television superstar and celebrated member of Temple University’s Board of Trustees, has protected him from the full freight of potential conviction and punishment. Here I give two specific examples. First, most individuals with multiple charges of sexual assault against them would quickly lose support from high-level institutions (although we have seen time and again that these individuals often do not lose the support of their wives and/or immediate family members). Cosby’s 2005 statement about drugging women did not get him removed from Temple’s Board of Trustees. It wasn’t until the multiple charges were issued ten years later that he “resigned” from the Board. This 2015 Washington Post piece analyzes Temple’s troubled relationship with Cosby. Cosby’s lawyer from 2015, Patrick J. O’Conner, is still the chair of Temple University’s board of trustees. This must send a rather fraught message to the university community about Title IX protections, or lack thereof, for students, staff (of which Andrea Constand was a member back in 2004), and faculty in the university community.
The second example of Cosby’s astounding sense of privilege and protection is his plan to offer “a series of town hall meetings this summer to educate people, including young athletes and married men, on how to avoid accusations of sexual assault,” as reported here in a 6-22-17 piece from The New York Times. (*See this related post in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.) This plan absurdly ignores that the best way to avoid accusations of sexual assault is not to sexually assault. This fake rehabilitative proposal is insulting, as is the statement by another Cosby employee that “anything at this point can be considered sexual assault” (same piece from The NYT). As I write this, another Cosby spokesperson has announced that the time isn’t right for Cosby to undertake these town hall meetings.
This is a Trump world in which reality t.v. glitz and glamour override logic, decency, and even the law.