Just. Like. Clockwork. A beloved Black man's worst moment is hurled into the spotlight, and Black people everywhere are forced to make one of three decisions: Do we publicly ignore the allegations and rush to his defense? Do we join the collective scolding? Or do we just stay silent? It happened when HBO released the Leaving Neverland documentary. Now the media is trying to "complicate" the late Kobe Bryant's legacy, and we find ourselves in this familiar predicament. Defend. Attack. Or be quiet.
Though Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault in 2003, to be fair, the charges were eventually dropped and the allegations never made it to trial. Additionally, his recent death makes adding him to this conversation particularly uncomfortable, but as Michael Jackson could probably tell him, death does not shield people from negative public opinions — especially Black men. So we find ourselves at this crossroads.
In a sensible world, we could choose any option, and go on to live our best lives. But we don't live in a perfect world. Instead, we exist in a dysfunctional society that has a history of torturing and killing Black men for false crimes. When most Black people see a sexual assault allegation pinned onto a high-profiled Black man's chest, our immediate response is to question it, because Emmett Till didn't get the luxury of being "innocent until proven guilty." It's almost an unwritten code; that Black people stand in solidarity against all negative accusations, primarily when the proposed victim is a white woman.
Some folks might read that last sentence and feel appalled, but the statistics that justify that defense mechanism is even more appalling.
In 2017, the National Registry of Exoneration found that "assaults on white women by African American men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the United States, but they constitute half of sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that led to exoneration." Additionally, the registry found that Black sexual assault prisoners are three and a half times more likely to be innocent than white prisoners. Thus, Black men made up nearly 50% of all exonerations listed to the registry as of October 2016.
This is not to say a Black man has never sexually assaulted or raped a white woman, but the alarming number of innocent Black men accused of perpetrating this act against white women has made Black people more inclined to choose the defense mode. Simply put, that's the code for most Black people — I am most Black people.
Then there are instances when the evidence against a Black man is strong enough to raise doubt. Not necessarily proving his guilt, but making his innocence questionable. However, Black people who question suspicious high-profiled Black men are sometimes labeled as "coons," or anti-Black. They are considered part of the propaganda to "destroy the Black man" because America has an explicitly documented history that focuses on this real-life agenda.
Challenging a Black man's innocence can be taken as a form of attack. At this moment, no two people know this ideology better than Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. When Oprah interviewed Michael Jackson's accusers, she became the enemy. As for King, she is being dragged and disrespected on Twitter, right now, as I type this article. Her crime? Asking basketball legend Lisa Leslie about Bryant's sexual assault case. Keep in mind, both women are journalists whose jobs require they ask difficult questions. Also they both have contributed innumerable financial and educational resources within the Black community.
Considering Jackson and Bryant are deceased legends who were not found guilty of any sexual crimes, the backlash is understandable. Furthermore, Bryant hasn't even been laid to rest. From an audience standpoint, the timing and approach is insensitive. That insensitivity coupled with the fresh wound from Bryant and his daughter’s death only intensified the backlash that King received.
At the same time, the disrespect directed at these two Black women is unacceptable. The scenario reveals the gross ways some Black men publicly humiliate Black women — but that's another article. It also shines light on the real issues we face when holding presumably guilty Black men accountable for problematic behaviors. To prove it, we need to look no further than Bill Cosby and R. Kelly.
Cosby was tried and convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault. Black folks should have the right to question his innocence without being chastised or labeled as "the opps." When Snoop Dogg reacted to King's interview with Leslie, he slyly segued from an understandable — yet disgustingly portrayed — point, to "Free Bill Cosby." That level of solidarity is dangerous and destructive to Black people.
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Snoop - when they brought me to my gated community and placed me inside of my penthouse, they didn’t win nor did they silence me. It’s so sad and disappointing that successful Black Women are being used to tarnish the image and legacy of successful Black Men, even in death. Are these people that in need of fame, ratings and/or money? On behalf of myself, Camille and my family, thank you, thank you and thank you. My heartfelt prayers are with Kobe and his family, as well as with Michael Jackson and his family. May their legacies live on forever. #ThankYouSnoopDogg #BetOnBlackLegacy #StopTearingDownBlackMen #EnoughIsEnough #KobeLegacyLivesOn #GiannaLegacyLivesOn #MichaelJacksonLegacyLivesOn #BillCosbyFarFromFinished
I'm not saying that Snoop Dogg should not express his belief that Bill Cosby is another innocent Black man targeted by the higher-ups, but none of us should lump questionable characters with seemingly innocent ones. Those are two different narratives that belong in two different chapters. Hell, those stories probably belong in two entirely different books. Even worse, when we lump these two groups together under the assumption that all Black men are innocent, even when proven guilty, we erase the accountability that we should hold ourselves to. My brothers and sisters, not all convicted Black rapists are guilty and not all Black rape suspects are innocent. The two can coexist, many Black people agree.
I totally get the Gayle King backlash right now. But I feel like some of yall are trying to quietly loop R. Kelly and Bill Cosby into the "group of black men who are being unfairly torn down," and let me tell yall something. Absolutley fucking not. pic.twitter.com/nAF02cnmpk— Ashley Asada ❄ (@WrecklessLove) February 6, 2020
Despite the mounds of video evidence against R. Kelly, his supporters still proclaim his innocence. Again, that is within their right, but do not use the "they're trying to destroy the Black man" defense when the legal system is responding to decades of reports and evidence. Also, I'm well aware that for every Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, there is a Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Stephen Collins — white men who, in many cases, have admitted to committing sexual assault yet remain out of jail. However, for those who use the "white men get away with it, so we should too" defense, that's just ignorant as hell. Subscribing to that idea only leads to moral decay and less accountability. In the words of Black mamas everywhere, "I don't give a damn what your other friends are doing. You ain't them."
Nonetheless, solidarity among Black people is important. Thus choosing to defend, attack or stay silent has serious implications. There are countless times, when our collective voice is imperative to justice, such as in the case of The Exonerated Five and The Jena Six. In the first instance, five young Black New York City boys collectively served about 35 years in prison for a rape and murder they did not commit. Our voices helped to free them. As for the Jena Six, those six Black boys received an excessive attempted murder charge forcing us to roll down to Jena, Louisiana and say, not today satan. However, we cannot use these cases to absolve the guilty. No matter how much we need and want positive Black male legacies, we still must hold questionable Black men accountable.
At the very least, let's allow each other a safe space to ask questions and get answers. A society without accountability breeds a vicious silence that leaves the most vulnerable parts of a community in danger.