In the last few days, the unending number of women who claim television and comedian Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them has finally reached its apex. One of the allegations against him falls within the statute of limitations, resulting in the the arrest of the 78-year old. And yet, there are still fans, many of them African American, who deny he would possibly rape anyone. Among his better known defenders are his own wife Camille Cosby, actress Phylicia Rashad, Academy Award winner and The View co-host Whoopi Goldberg and singer Jill Scott (the last two of whom would later publicly backtrack their support) just to name a few. African American critics, particularly on social media, have been quick to castigate these women for their protection of an accused rapist. Comparisons have been made between Cosby’s unfair treatment and everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to White men of prominence who have also been accused of rape like directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.
But, beneath these protective affirmations for Cosby lies an African American community, who by in large is circumspect and on the defensive because of a long history of Black men who have been falsely accused of sexual assault and brutally murdered as part of a racist vigilante justice. Following the era of Reconstruction after the Civil War came a time when rules and laws of segregation (aka Jim Crow) were put into place to establish a sense of “order” over the newly freed Black citizens who could now vote and establish economic freedom. However, for those who “stepped out of line” or posed a threat to White supremacy, organized vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan were there to terrorize the Black communities through the destruction and firebombing of Black-owned property including homes, businesses and churches. The worst of these were lynchings, usually perpetrated against Black men, who were accused of sexually assaulting or murdering a White woman. A particularly famous event was the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. It is questioned whether the 17-year old Washington had a mental disability or if he was just illiterate, but when a White woman named Lucy Fryer was raped and murdered, he was said to have confessed in writing to the crime. The jury (all White men) took four minutes to convict Washington. Before he was taken from the courtroom, a mob surged upon him, captured him and tortured him for hours before be was hung and burned at City Hall. His murder was photographed heavily and made national headlines for its brutality becoming known as the “Waco Horror.”
Southern White politicians who supported Jim Crow stood proudly in defense of lynching as a means of preserving their way of life. Indeed in 1900, South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman said in a speech before Congress, “We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern White men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the White man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”
Lynching became such a concern that 19th century African American scholar, Booker T. Washington made it a part of his work at the Tuskegee Institute. Under his direction, Tuskegee began to record statistics on lynchings during that time and concluded that 3,446 Blacks and 1,297 Whites had been lynched between 1882 and 1968, with the peak occurring in the late 1800s. The majority of these murders were in the South with Mississippi leading as the worst offender, followed by Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas.
The rest of the country however was not immune to a narrative of the predatory Black man. In 1920, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were publicly lynched in Duluth, Minnesota after being accused of raping a White woman. While a physician’s subsequent examination of the woman found no evidence of rape or assault, photos of their murder, like many others, were turned into postcards.
Disturbed by the depravity of these executions, many in the Black community became activists around the cause, resulting in the birth of organizations like the NAACP and the prominence of activists like Ida B. Wells. She launched her own anti-lynching campaign after three of her friends were murdered by a Memphis mob. Mary Church Terrell, another renowned African American civil rights and women’s rights activist, was also motivated into a career of activism when she heard of the lynching murder of one of her close friends.
Given this shared sordid history, it’s not surprising that some African Americans feel compelled to defend Bill Cosby so vociferously. He is a talented comedian whose television show about an upper middle class Black family was seminal in helping to change the narrative of Blacks in America. The Cosby Show transformed him into the character Heathcliff Huxtable, a modern day, benevolent but stern, dad. We had already accepted Cosby as the happy-go-lucky wholesome man from the JELL-O Pudding Pops advertisements and his Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids children’s show. Race and cultural legacy have to be considered in our opinion of Cosby. So much so that even one of his accusers, African American supermodel Beverly Johnson, admitted her hesitation in coming forward against Cosby saying, “Black men have enough enemies out there already.”
Our history bears out the evidence that the cautiousness from Black people against false accusation is indeed warranted. Look at today’s examples like the Central Park Five. In 1989, four Black and one Latino teen were accused of brutally raping a White woman in New York’s Central Park. They were convicted after a very public trial. After years in prison, DNA eventually proved their innocence and they were finally exonerated in 2002.
But at what point, even while understanding our history, does this sense of Black solidarity actually become harmful and detrimental, particularly to the most vulnerable members of our society— women and children? A 2005 Justice Department study cited 44 percent of White women report sexual assault crimes versus 17 percent of Black women. The numbers would have us assume that a White woman is more comfortable filing a sexual assault crime against say a promising, handsome White athlete from her town who assaulted her even if he’s a “good” kid, who comes from a “nice family.” Why don’t Black women feel the same?
Part of it is because proving the truth in a sexual assault case is more challenging when dealing with our twisted American history of race. It’s safe to assume this must go through the minds of some Black rape survivors. After all, according to Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network, (RAINN), 68 percent of all rapes go unreported while 98 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail. So of those survivors who actually come forward and relive their horror most will never see justice, which is only further complicated by the inevitable shame and fear that accompany sexual assault.
If we want to end rape culture, a culture that has horrifically victimized Black women, most recently within the Daniel Holtzclaw case (the ex-Oklahoma City cop convicted of raping 13 Black women), the Black community needs to look past a hero’s achievements. Regardless of how great and beneficial he has been for the Black community, we must think long and hard about the facts as they lead to the truth. If we truly mean to say that Black lives matter, then we must believe it loses all meaning if only applied to just a few.
BIO: Atima Omara is an award-winning nonprofit leader and political strategist in the progressive movement with professional focus on issues affecting women, communities of color, and youth. Follow her on Twitter @atima_omara