Famed comedian Bill Cosby, known for his role in The Cosby Show, and breaking racial stereotypes regarding the African-American experience, has re-entered the limelight after being accused by 35 women of sexual assault. On October 16, 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress made a joke mocking Cosby’s public persona: “Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ’80s. Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.” This routine went viral and women began to publicly accuse Cosby of sexual assault extending all the way back to 1974.
Cosby’s attorneys dismissed the accusations as “decades old, discredited” accounts. But the sheer volume of accusations could not be ignored. Despite the fact that most of the allegations were past their statute of limitations, Andrea Constand was able to charge Cosby for rape in his home in 2004.
In opening statements, Cosby’s lawyer attacked Constand’s credibility by pointing out the inconsistencies in the dates she gave to the police. Furthermore, Cosby’s lawyers tried to paint him as a mistaken husband. He gained public support from both his real wife, Camille, and his TV wife, Phylicia Rashad. Rashad comments “I think it’s orchestrated… [The Cosby Show is] a legacy that is so important to [African American] culture. Someone is determined to keep Bill Cosby off TV, and it’s worked.” Such emotional appeal is dangerous to society. Humanizing a celebrity in this case lowers societal punishment, thus the potential cost of committing an act of sexual assault for perpetrators.
Not only did Cosby try to emotionally appeal to the jury, but he also pleaded for black journalists to remain neutral in their reports of the rape allegations against him. In an interview with the New York Post, Cosby said “I only expect the black media to uphold the standards of excellence in journalism and when you do that you have to go in with a neutral mind.”
This parallels the infamous Orenthal James Simpson case in which issues of race arouse. O.J. Simpson’s defense team played the race card to induce a mainly black jury’s sympathy. Simpson’s defense tried to build a racial divide between Mark Fuhrman, the white cop known for racist remarks against African Americans in the 1980s, and Simpson, a charismatic, black football player and a status symbol to African Americans for hurdling past obstacles typically faced by racial prejudice. Simpson received mixed reviews from the black community, but was ultimately acquitted of criminal charges.
In Cosby’s case, members of the “black media”, if even such a single institution exists, have said that it is not their job to protect Cosby, despite what he has done for the African American community. The editorial director of Colorlines.com, Akiba Solomon, found Cosby’s comments degrading to black journalists as “media is media.” Solomon meant that Cosby’s pleads to the “black media” made it seem like black journalists were first black and then journalists. It was not Cosby’s place to solely put the responsibility onto black news outlets. “It makes it seem that black media should take special care of him, and that by taking special care of him that we’re protecting a prominent black man who’s done nothing wrong,” Solomon said. “That’s problematic.” Additionally, the President of the National Association of Black Journalists, Bob Butler responded to Cosby’s plead, by saying that “black media, in fact all media should remain neutral.”