Cosby and Ferguson: Why Addressing Gender Violence and Racial Violence Is Not Either/Or Option

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This post first appeared at The American Prospect.

Young women attend a candlelight vigil for victims of gun violence Friday, Oct. 10, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Young women attend a candlelight vigil for victims of gun violence Friday, Oct. 10, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

I’ve never understood the “one or the other” mentality. Being a mother, I am in an ever present state of multi-tasking. So when a male acquaintance said that the Cosby scandal was a a distraction from the grand jury decision regarding Ferguson, I inquired, “How?”

He asserted that if the lead news story becomes Cosby, then Ferguson and the protests in response to the police violence there become a footnote to the issue of racial violence in the town. He took the view that I’ve seen from a lot of men lately, which is that it is horrible “if” these alleged sexual assaults occurred, but we need to “wait until all of the evidence comes out” for us to fully understand what happened with these women and Bill Cosby.

If you find it necessary to take a “wait and see” approach to the outcome of the allegations mounting against Bill Cosby, wouldn’t it logically follow that you would have taken the same approach to the accusation that Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown without adequate cause?

This is my issue: If you find it necessary to take a “wait and see” approach to the outcome of the allegations mounting against Bill Cosby, wouldn’t it logically follow that you would have taken the same approach to the accusation that Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown without adequate cause? In order for you to be OK with Bill Cosby bullying news outlets to silence these allegations, it follows that you would have to be OK with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declaring a state of emergency ahead of the grand jury’s decision in an apparent attempt to silence the people of Ferguson. Why would you believe the accounts given by eyewitnesses to Michael Brown’s slaying, but not believe the testimony of women who say they experienced rape at the hands of a particular man?

Regarding which should be the top headline, I don’t disagree with my friend: The legal system’s treatment last month of the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer of the law, and its aftermath in the streets, naturally takes precedent in the priorities of news coverage over the decade-old allegations, however egregious, of a celebrity’s serial assaults of women. But both stories speak volumes about the way vast societal institutions — law enforcement, the legal system, media — treat marginalized people. But if such priorities reversed the precedence, my friend would have to apply the same benefit of the doubt to Darren Wilson as he does Bill Cosby. And he does not.

In terms of importance, he was placing the racial violence in Ferguson ahead of sexual violence against women. However, as a black woman — being a double “minority,” as it were — I see race and gender violence through the same prism in terms of atrocities against humanity. They are equally horrific, and equally need addressing. On these issues, we must multi-task. I can be equally outraged at the killing of an unarmed black male and at the same time stand in solidarity with the women allegedly raped by Bill Cosby. You can’t downplay alleged sexual violence of now 17 women yet exalt the grievance of the alleged racial violence against Michael Brown simply because you don’t share the same gender as the former — because, you know, male privilege.

Watching this entire Cosby debacle unfold, I’ve been in mourning. The slow trickle of victims telling — and in a number of cases, retelling — their stories about Bill Cosby being a rapist has been depressingly sobering. And it’s not the first time that a number of these women have made these allegations. Some go back years. But it wasn’t until Hannibal Burress called Cosby a rapist in his comedy routine that the allegations gained traction.

Bill Cosby, beloved for his groundbreaking role in I Spy and his groundbreaking program, The Cosby Show, has built a life out of choosing projects that foster a sense of learning and education among his audiences. These also include his shows A Different WorldPicture Pages, the Fat Albert cartoon series and, even later, Kids Say the Darndest Things. Children and adults could tune into his programs to watch clean, fun entertainment.

I grew up watching The Cosby Show. I was the same age as “Rudy,” the character played by Keisha Knight Pulliam; watching Cosby every Thursday was a family ritual. As I got older and A Different World, a spinoff from Cosby, aired, I aspired to be one of the college kids at the fictional Hillman University, an historically black college (HBCU). This was a big reason why I eventually chose to attend Howard University.

My story is not unique. Many African-American men and women between the ages of 25-45 who matriculated at an HBCU can attest to the influence of Bill Cosby and A Different World as one of the reasons why they attended. A generation collectively followed this man’s advice, whether explicit or subliminal, from the time we were babies watching Picture Pages, until we went to college.

However big the influence that Cosby commanded on society, that should not cause us to deny nor turn a blind eye to likelihood that he is someone capable of horrific crimes, even if his public persona is the direct opposite — that of the upstanding citizen. Violence is violence. The women who accuse Cosby were allegedly drugged and raped by him.

This wasn’t the case of a philandering man who had many consensual extra-marital affairs. As morally reprehensible as that would be, at least the women would hold agency in their part of an affair. This is a man who allegedly took young, impressionable women and rendered them unconscious and powerless, so that their voices were nonexistent. In one sense, it is a criminally violent expression of the gender dynamics of the time in which Cosby grew up.

Vintage ads speak to women’s constrained role in society. Mad Men, the period drama on HBO, depicts the lives of ad executives in the 1960s, whose sexist behavior pretty much epitomizes the era. It took women more than a century to secure right to vote in the United States; African-American men won that right before we did. Even in the present day, women’s agency over their bodies is questioned when we stand up for ourselves. As a class of people, women are still in a struggle for full human rights, as are African-Americans.

Make no mistake, the ongoing uprising in Ferguson is fully warranted. At the heart of the issue in Ferguson is a town currently constituted via a history of oppressive laws against citizens, the color of whose skin was treated as an irredeemable flaw. This is the reason people have been demonstrating for over 100 days since the killing of Michael Brown. Within this historical context, it becomes clear that African-Americans continue to be viewed as less than citizens. What Darren Wilson did was a modern-day lynching, conducted in front of neighbors, an act born of the impulse to incite fear and obedience.

This same dynamic that prompted the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s has renewed itself in Ferguson. The reason for a protest is obvious. The irregular proceedings and delays in the grand jury process point to an institutional bias against an indictment for the officer who shot Michael Brown in broad daylight. A system in which the police force is overwhelmingly white, and the convictions are overwhelmingly black points to systemically implemented, racially oppressive intentions by those who control the law.

Then what are we to make of the media’s — and society’s — long-time indifference to the rape allegations against Bill Cosby? Is this not a systemic issue, an institutional bias against indicting a powerful man accused of violence against 17 women? Considering these two sets of circumstances — Ferguson and Cosby — there is no choosing. This is not “one or the other.” This is both and then some. Racial violence does not trump gender violence, and gender violence does not trump racial violence. Oppression is oppression.

It seems that, even in the 21st century, it takes the voices of men speaking up about gender violence in order for people to start to pay attention. Hannibal Buress started the conversation; now other men, such as Mychal Denzel Smith, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Marc Lamont Hill, have joined him. It shouldn’t take men’s voices validating the grievances of women for the masses to hear us. The fact that it is so proves the point that the struggle for women’s rights remains as urgent as the struggle for racial equality. Both struggles ultimately aim at a common goal: equal justice under the law.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

andrea cambron
Andrea Cambron is the producer of Make it Plain on SiriusXM Progress Channel 127, and host of the show’s Women’s Wednesday segment, tackling issues of heath, politics, the economy, current events and race from a feminist perspective. Follow her on Twitter @andreacambron.
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