Op-Ed: Rise of the Celebrity 'Truthers'

by Jeff Johnson /  / Updated 

After a groundswell of accusations over the course of a year, Bill Cosby was charged with second degree felony sexual assault and Andrea Constand joined the nearly 60 women who have alleged that Cosby drugged them and performed sexual acts against their will.

This incomprehensible case has revealed an ugly truth about the African American community and celebrities. These celebrities are often given the benefit of the doubt, or an outright pass—not because of their moral compass, but the illusion of irreproachability due to wealth and fame.

Rise of the Truthers

Cosby apologists on social media warn against “believing everything the media says” and implore us to “Stay Woke” (a Black Twitter colloquialism laced in conspiracy theory which advises heightened awareness when certain topics are prevalent in media). According to the contingent of Facebook truthers in the world, the sole reason why rape allegations against Bill Cosby surfaced was in direct response of his attempt to purchase NBCUniversal.

While there were a couple of meetings about a NBC purchase 24 years ago, and talks of Cosby returning to the network in a new sitcom, Cosby was never a legitimate suitor to purchase NBCUniversal (which wasn’t really “for sale” at that time).

The irony of a vocal minority, blind to the mountain of evidence suggesting that Bill Cosby used his celebrity to take advantage or women, wouldn’t research their own claims before submitting as fact isn't lost on me.

As an African-American, there are countless examples throughout our history in this country that warrants caution when disseminating information by the mainstream media. Would I concede that an “agenda” against Cosby that’s magnifying these age old allegations may exist? Probably. Is there a chance that over 50 women are fabricating these tales of rape against Bill Cosby? Probably not.

A predator can also commit noble acts, yet those actions do not eradicate their predatory nature.

This past year we have been beseeched by Cosby fans to acknowledge his contributions to the African-American community as countless women continued to come forward against him. Humanity has complications and nuance. A predator can also commit noble acts, yet those actions do not eradicate their predatory nature.

The attempts to humanize Cosby seems eerily similar to how media outlets will do the same for police officers who kill unarmed blacks, or white terrorists involved in mass shootings. Why do I care if they watch sitcoms or come from a broken home if they still committed abhorrent acts of evil. Those that want us to see both sides with Cosby, sing a different tune when asked to do the same for Darren Wilson or Dylann Roof.

Furthermore, I find it convenient that African Americans should rally around Cosby, when he toured the country championing respectability politics and shaming black men at every turn. As if “pulling up our pants” would prevent unarmed black men from police brutality and injustice. Cosby can keep his pound cake as far as I’m concerned.

To insinuate that rape is only legitimate when reported in a timely manner is to disregard statistical evidence, history and the prevalence of misogyny in our society.

The arguments which preach skepticism against the stories of Cosby’s “alleged” victims hinge on the timing of their accusations.

Cosby 'Truthers' question the validity of these charges given that a majority of these alleged sexual attacks took place over 40 years ago. The narrative formulated from ignorance and blind faith would have us believe that book deals, notoriety and Cosby’s wealth make him a prime target for opportunistic women.

To insinuate that rape is only legitimate when reported in a timely manner is to disregard statistical evidence, history and the prevalence of misogyny in our society.

Image: Andrea Constand, who accuses Cosby of sexually assaulting her, walks in a park in Toronto
Andrea Constand, who accuses Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting her, walks in a park in Toronto, December 30, 2015.MARK BLINCH / Reuters

Some of Cosby’s alleged victims actually attempted to come forward immediately without support or success, as recent as 2002. Mainstream interest began to peak when video clips of comedian Hannibal Buress stand up routine about Cosby and rape charges surfaced.

Hell, Cosby even gave us the blueprint for how to drug women for personal benefit! When you acknowledge that 1 out of every 6 women in America being a victim of an attempted or completed rape, and 68% of rapes going unreported to police, you can see why challenging Bill Cosby at the height of his popularity, or even afterwards would intimidate anyone.

Rapists use sex as a tool to subjugate their victims, and isn’t always about the sexual act itself. The lack of understanding on this topic permeates the fabric of our society. Actress Reagan Gomez in a discussion on Twitter surrounding Cosby, offered her view on the perpetuation of Rape Culture in America:

Usually where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The law demands that we are innocent until proven guilty, but even the most skeptical individual has to admit that over 55 women accusing a man of rape across 4 decades sounds like a proverbial four alarm blaze.

The Illusions Of Artistic Excellence

Bill Cosby portrayed one of the most iconic characters on TV as Heathcliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show. His eight season run signified a period of positive African American representation in mainstream television. Whether you saw episodes live or in syndication, you cherished the abundance of life lessons within the humour and family atmosphere. Although art can imitate life, as humans we can become susceptible to projecting the moral compass of fictional characters on the actual actors.

Heathcliff Huxtable is NOT Bill Cosby, and vice versa. This isn’t the first time that a mega star’s celebrity within the African American community illuminates over the darkness of their transgressions.

There’s no denying R. Kelly’s place in music, but at what point do fans look past his art and hold him accountable for these morally disgusting acts?

R Kelly, with a history of settlements due to sexual encounters with underage girls, continues to be supported finally through record sales and sold-out concerts. The man who has an illegal marriage to a then 15 year old Aaliyah in 1994 (Kelly was 25). The man who gave himself the nickname of 'The Pied Piper', after the character who lured children away from their parents using his enchanted musical powers.

Kelly’s sexual assaults were largely underreported, but accounts are readily available and have been covered in detail. He wants the support of the black community, but will act brazenly defiant when questioned legitimately about the past allegations.

R. Kelly Visits Good Morning America
R. Kelly arrives at the studios of ABC's Good Morning America in New York City on Dec 21, 2015.MediaPunch via AP

Some fans are willing to turn a blind eye to everything associated with R. Kelly’s past sexual deviance because they love his music. There’s no denying Kelly’s place in music, but at what point do fans look past his art and hold him accountable for these morally disgusting acts?

I won’t feel bad about watching The Cosby Show or stepping in the name of love at an event. R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and any other flawed artist contributed to the art and that’s for our consumption. The art does not grant impunity from any alleged wrongdoing, or the subsequent judgement associated with them.

Judgement In Two Courts

Cosby will finally have his day in court. Well after this case ends, the victims whether silent or vocal, will still have to deal with the emotional consequences of unwanted sexual advances against them.

We still have a cultural imbalance in how women are treated and perceived, which indirectly sanctions rape culture. The rich and famous will be deified above reproach at the cost of our women and girls' safety, and they may remain silent because no one will listen.

When supporters of these men contribute to misinformation in order to bolster their point, we have a problem.

We will go to the ends of the Earth to “protect our own” but when “our own” includes abused black women and girls, why the hesitation? Yes the law is applied to people of color more harshly than our white counterparts. People who commit similar crimes seem to get less media scrutiny.

We should not allow our rightfully placed skepticism of Black men’s portrayal in media and of the justice system to become a misdirected demonstration of civil disobedience, or an outlet for men like Cosby, R.Kelly and others to use our mistrust to hide their ill intentions.

This isn’t about “digging up old stuff” to condemn a man. It’s about the accountability for a history of violent acts against women that should be addressed whether they happened yesterday or 50 years ago.

Bill Cosby shouldn’t have his medals returned or his star removed on the Walk of Fame. Honestly, if those accolades were based on morality along with individual talents, then you probably wouldn’t see many stars at all. Those celebrities are as susceptible to being horrible people as anyone else.

When we as fans can accept that proficiency in a performing art or sport doesn’t absolve you from the imperfections of humanity, then we can better distinguish the artists from themselves.

For now, our society continues to hold victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse culpable instead of their alleged perpetrators.