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Jamilah Lemieux Bill Cosby's sexual assault conviction is both bitter and sweet for many Black feminists

We had to reconcile our loathing for America’s racist legal system with the need to see an elderly Black icon face justice
Image:
Bill Cosby looks around before he leaves the Montgomery County Courthouse on April 26, 2018, in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Cosby was convicted Thursday of drugging and molesting a woman in the first big celebrity trial of the #MeToo era.Corey Perrine / AP
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Before his guilty verdict in a retrial — about which I hadn’t felt confident anyway — I’d almost forgotten that a Pennsylvania jury had been deliberating last week whether Bill Cosby, aged 80, had committed a sexual assault in 2004.

But instead of feeling happy that the many women he’d allegedly harmed would have at least some modicum of justice from a system that so rarely delivers any at all, I found myself anxious at the thought of how the news would be received.

The myriad allegations of sexual assault made against the former television star would bring to the fore a particularly disgusting brand of sexism — one that is often directed towards Black women.

It is important to also understand that a singular court victory does not compare to the losses that have been suffered as a result of Cosby’s actions.

In defending Cosby, many often point to the nation’s history of violence against Black men that was spurred and/or justified by false sexual assault allegations (as well as conspiracy theories based around his reported interest in purchasing a stake in NBC 16 years ago). Some have gone so far as to denounce the Black women who have spoken against him as “pawns” that were used to destroy the legacy of the former sitcom star, echoing a belief that Black feminists are being hoodwinked and led astray by white women who supposedly teach them to hate Black men.

But the comedian’s loathsome critiques of his own people became a topic of national attention following an infamous 2004 speech, in which he chided Black mothers as reckless and apt to have “Five or six different children” by “eight, 10 different husbands” and spoke of Black youth with the sort of contempt one would expect from a Fox News host. However, his “Pound Cake” politics rhetoric consistently failed to convince his most ardent defenders to redirect their energies toward a Black person who might be better deserving of their support (such as, say, Beverly Johnson, Lili Bernard and the other Black women who were among Cosby’s accusers).

Cosby’s conviction on three counts of sexual assault represents a chance at peace for the many alleged victims who have said that “America’s Dad” violated them (or attempted to do so) with the assistance of Quaaludes. It sends a message that powerful men can no longer count on being able to escape the consequences of violent, predatory behavior because of their stature or achievements.

However, while many of us believe that a conviction and prison sentence are the appropriate consequences for Cosby to face, this victory is still more bitter than sweet.

Cosby's conviction sends a message that powerful men can no longer count on being able to escape the consequences of violent, predatory behavior because of their stature or achievements.

Black feminists by and large are not and were never delighting in the destruction of a cultural icon because of some deep-seated loathing of heterosexual Black men. We did not speak out about Cosby’s apparent decades of predatory behavior because we hate men, but because we want and we deserve to live in a world without rape.

We chose not to align ourselves with a morally bankrupt brand of racial loyalty that is only reserved for Black heterosexual cisgender men, and inevitably swiftly weaponized against other Black people who don’t fit that category (such as, again, the Black women who were among Cosby’s accusers).

We spoke out because we believed that there is no amount of philanthropy, no sitcom, no cultural impact significant enough that it should give someone the ability to violate women’s bodies at will as he sees fit. To have to explain this to adults over and over again, on social media and at social gatherings, has been absolutely maddening.

Black feminist writers and pundits like myself have supported Cosby’s victims for the better part of the last four years, even as some of us had to grapple with feelings of confusion and loss — the same confusion and loss that his defenders seemed hell-bent on avoiding. We’ve had to recognize the vast chasm that always existed between the real Bill Cosby and the affable, proud Black patriarch that he sold to us on and off-screen for decades. We had to do the sobering work of reconciling our loathing for this country’s broken, racist legal system with our reliance upon it to deliver some modicum of justice to an elderly Black icon whose choice of victims was seemingly most often white, while recognizing our inability to call on white women when we are targeted ourselves

We’ve had to recognize the vast chasm that always existed between the real Bill Cosby and the affable, proud Black patriarch that he sold to us on and off-screen for decades.

I, like other Black women who share my feminist values, have spent years pleading with people to recognize the ways that we suffer at the hands of both racism and sexism. We have had to challenge the seeming notion that predatory Black men who escape accountability are enjoying some sort of reparations for those we lost to false allegations, while reminding the world that Black women don’t exist as some sort of footnote to or collateral damage in Black men’s struggles with racism.

Given that white men represent the heights of undue privilege in a white supremacist patriarchy, the desire to see Black men equipped with the same unchecked power is both unsurprising and wildly dangerous. The racial terror that Black men have experienced for centuries cannot prevent us from acknowledging and acting on the misdeeds that an individual Black man has committed.

Black women should not be expected to champion Bill Cosby, R. Kelly or any other men in our communities who behave with physical or sexual violence, and to ask as much of us is to tell us that Black women do not matter as much as Black men do. Black women’s advocacy for ourselves and for other women is not an affront to Black men, and to continuously be told otherwise is a form of abuse and neglect all its own.

Between the scores of alleged victims, the deception and collusion required to keep such behavior largely under wraps for so many years and the reminder that sexual predators are often closer to home than we may recognize, it is important to also understand that a singular court victory does not compare to the losses that have been suffered as a result of Cosby’s actions. The modicum of joy that this moment affords us does not undo the pain that comes with being denounced and decried as race traitors for calling out a Black man who allegedly has harmed scores of women.

Jamilah Lemieux is a writer, cultural critic and public speaker who serves as the VP of programming for CASSIUS. Her work has appeared in a host of publications, including Wired, Essence, The Washington Post, EBONY and The Nation.

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