Point of View Columns

Bill Cosby is not Emmett Till

The end of 2015 presented the sad and pathetic spectacle of Bill Cosby doing the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania version of the “perp walk” as the first criminal charges for sexual misconduct were formally filed against him. This comes after half a hundred women have publicly alleged all manner of sexual transgressions have been committed by this formerly iconic public figure. And now the real controversy begins.

Given the legal reality that Mr. Cosby is innocent until proven guilty – beyond a reasonable doubt – there is certainly no direct path to prison being paved especially for him. And given the very real and deep psychological factors at work in female and male victims of sexual assault, it should be understood that the timelines for such victims to come forward to confront their attackers can be fundamentally different from that of a victim of say, robbery or assault.

Of course this is the United States of America, a country founded on the institution of race-based slavery. We live in a country that is still shackled to its racist past and there is no post-racist present. And, because Bill Cosby is an American of African descent, there is no way that racial factors will not be a part of the narrative that is now being played out in real time.

And as this narrative plays out questions are being asked and assertions are being made in various precincts in the national black community to the effect that Mr. Cosby is being treated unfairly because he is black. Here are a few of these/questions assertions with some suggested responses/observations:

1. Bill Cosby is a victim – he is only being prosecuted because the “system” is choosing to bring down yet another prominent black man. While the American system of justice is undoubtedly unfair to black Americans far too often –witness the crime within a crime of mass incarceration and racially disproportionate sentencing – that is not the problem here. Before the issue of race, the issue of class should be examined. Bill Cosby is a very wealthy and very prominent man. These kinds of charges are rarely brought against members of this class. But a brief survey of America’s prisons will reveal more than a few members of this class charged with all manner of criminal conduct, most of them white, who are wearing orange jumpsuits for long periods of time.

2. If he were white these charges never would have been brought. As noted, there are white millionaires in prison who would strenuously disagree. Since Bill Cosby is black there is a reflex response in the national black community that something unfair must be going on – but the virtual blizzard of accusations certainly warrant examination by the criminal justice system – then very subjective discretion comes into play – as it does in all criminal cases.

3. The charges against Bill Cosby are so old they are calcified, therefore it is unfair to prosecute him. There are entire libraries full of books and articles describing the various responses of victims of sexual crimes. There are no standards in the world of these victims. Their allegations may never be proven – but to diminish them because of time factors is simply ignorant.

What is important about this l’affaire Cosby is that because it is viewed through the lens of the reality of race and law in America, defenders of Bill Cosby may be erroneously putting him in the category of the many thousands of black Americans who are unjustly accused, overcharged and over sentenced virtually every day of every year.

Simply put, unlike Emmett Till or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or Geronimo Pratt, Bill Cosby should not be the symbol of racial injustice. To do so tarnishes the painful legacies of Till, Garner, Rice, Pratt and so many others – so many others who deserve better than Bill Cosby as their avatar.

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