Bill Cosby, rape and racist tropes


Warning! Personal opinion ahead!

I abhor rape.

It is a crime of power and misogyny.

I abhor rapists.

They are criminals deserving of severe punishment.

I abhor being tricked.

Those who present the most appealing faces to the public (celebrities, politicians, executives), often use those appealing faces to camouflage appalling abuses of trust.

Therefore, I abhor Bill Cosby and his alleged drug aided rapes of unsuspecting women.

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#444444″]It illustrates one of our favorite racist tropes, the black man raping white women.[/pullquote]

But … I’m beginning to get a bit uncomfortable with Cosby’s pillorying in the press. Perhaps I’m the only one, but it’s beginning to seem to me less like an all too common tale of a man using his celebrity to abuse women and more like another equally common ugly, racist trope: the black rapist sullying the virtue of white women.

Wasn’t it only weeks ago when Dylann Roof declared in regard to African-Americans, “No, you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country … I have to do what I have to do.” right before allegedly shooting to death nine innocent worshipers in black church?

Yesterday New York Magazine published a powerful cover:

Cosby New York cover

It’s powerful because it illustrates the scope of the crimes and the scope of the deception. But I wonder whether it is also powerful because it illustrates one of our favorite racist tropes, the black man raping white women.

What Cosby allegedly did to these women is despicable, but he’s hardly the first beloved entertainer who used his celebrity to prey on women. The list of white celebrities past and present who were or are sexual predators is practically endless. Yet the alleged Cosby crimes seem to have captured the public imagination like no others. Could it be because it confirms deeply held racist stereotypes?

As Jamelle Bouie wrote on Slate:

Make any list of anti-black terrorism in the United States, and you’ll also have a list of attacks justified by the specter of black rape. The Tulsa race riot of 1921—when white Oklahomans burned and bombed a prosperous black section of the city—began after a black teenager was accused of attacking, and perhaps raping, a white girl in an elevator. The Rosewood massacre of 1923, in Florida, was also sparked by an accusation of rape. And most famously, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered after allegedly making sexual advances on a local white woman.


It’s tempting to treat Dylann Storm Roof as a Southern problem, the violent collision of neo-Confederate ideology and a permissive gun culture. The truth, however, is that his fear—of black power and of black sexuality—belongs to America as much as it does the South.

Make no mistake, Cosby deserves to be punished to the full extent the law allows and he deserves to lose the popularity and respect that he squandered. Moreover, part of the reason why Cosby’s alleged crimes have remained front and center in the collective consciousness is because he denies them. Nonetheless, I’m beginning to question the obsession of the media and ourselves with the crimes of a famous black man.

As the New York Magazine cover demonstrates, a picture is worth a thousand words. Hopefully, the words that come to mind on viewing this picture are about the pervasiveness of sexual predation, and don’t breathe new life into one of the oldest, most shameful racist tropes that ever blighted this nation.

  • lola

    I wonder how much of this is somehow a fall out from Jian Ghomeshi? A Canadian celebrity of much, much lesser stature, he was the host of a popular national radio show (and previously, a band popular in the 90s with a couple hit songs.) He was known by friends of mine in the Toronto scene as “the Persian strangler”, and everyone involved in entertainment would warn “new” women about him. It was a giant secret that everyone knew about. When it finally broke, it was all over the mainstream media here, and it was a similar story, in that there had been several women over the years (one of the large universities had quietly stopped placing students as interns on his show), but nothing ever came of their accusations. The Cosby accusations started resurfacing around this time, with some commenters bringing it up and mentioning the similarities in that nothing ever came of what was clearly wrongdoing.

    • Megan

      I had no idea! How will I ever nostalgically listen to Moxy Fruvous ever again?? Oh well… Murray was always my favorite anyway….

  • Amy

    I agree with you regarding concern about racist tropes in the media, but I’ve seen the most attention about this from my African-American friends on Facebook. You have to remember that in recent years Bill Cosby has gotten a lot of attention for how much he’s bashed the Black community for not being “good enough” and basically blaming them for most of their problems. So there’s a lot of hypocrisy at play here beyond the wholesome TV-dad image.

    • LibrarianSarah

      Not only that but the only reason we are even talking about this is because Hannibal Burass (another black male comedian) called him out in his stand up act for his hypocrisy.

      At the same time, I do find the New Yorker cover interesting. Specially how they put mostly white women at the top of the page while women of color were more dispersed at the bottom. It is a good visual on how the media “rates”‘ victims based on the color of their skin.

      • fiftyfifty1

        didn’t they place them in order of their coming forward?

  • Into soul winter I fly

    I think its big the media bc its a huge number of women who have come out about being raped by him.

  • Gatita

    Amy, I appreciate you putting this out there but I don’t think it’s as much of an issue as you believe. I remember when Beverly Johnson came forward it got a huge wave of attention and she’s black. I think the big reason for the coverage is the sheer number of women involved. More than 40 and these are just the ones who came forward because you know there are probably 100 more who can’t bring themselves to speak publicly. Compare this coverage to the Penn State coverage and I think you’d say they’re about the same level of outrage and ubiquity.

    P.S. I never liked the Cosby Show even back when it debuted and I was a college student. Never resonated with me.

  • Trixie

    I think it’s more complicated than that. Gen X-early Gen Y kids grew up with Cliff Huxtable as *the* TV dad. He was our Andy Griffith, our Ward Cleaver. We identified with the Huxtable kids and imagined our dads could be as cool as he was. I think a lot of the coverage has to do with people my age processing how TV Dad turned out to be a monster.

    • yentavegan

      I agree with you . I do not think of Bill Cosby as anything other than the Dad who let us down…the Dad who turned out to be a disgusting human being. He has destroyed the important icons of my childhood. I am grossed out by the mere thought of him.

    • Liz Leyden

      Especially if your parents were black, grew up in the segregated south, and came of age at a time when blacks on TV as something other than a servant was A Big Deal.

  • Ennis Demeter

    These accusations were brushed aside for a long time, though. I think his long run of being a cool comedian finally ended.

  • Liz Leyden

    I think a lot of the Cosby pile-on is about the fact that he portrayed himself as a paragon of moral behavior off-screen. Remember the “poundcake” speech, where he castigated blacks for walking around with their pants hanging down and having out-of-wedlock children? This was after he was accused of fathering an out-of-wedlock daughter, who he never acknowledged.

    Mike Tyson went to jail in the late 1980s for raping a 21-year-old. OJ Simpson and Miles Davis were known wife-beaters. Melvin Van Peebles took his 13-year-old son to a brothel as preparation for a sex scene in a blaxploitation film. None of them claimed to be moral paragons, or lectured other people about their bad behavior.

    I grew up in a small town where 2 priests, a mayor, and a youth minister all went to jail for raping kids. I lived in Boston during the Roman Catholic church’s child sex abuse scandal. I know better than to be surprised by a self-appointed moral paragon getting caught balls-deep in someone he shouldn’t be with. Cosby is just another fallen saint.

    • sdsures

      “OJ Simpson and Miles Davis were known wife-beaters.”

      OJ Simpson is a murderer in addition to being a wife-beater. Read “Outrage: The Five Reasons Why OJ Simpson Got Away with Murder” if you need more convincing than just plain old common sense. Also available is this video series, which is meant as a companion to the book.

      • Medwife

        Of course he is, but he was a wife beater long before he was a murderer.

        • sdsures

          The reaction of the jurors to the evidence of Simpson’s beating of Nicole was repugnant. In an interview after the verdict, one of them said the following:

          “I don’t know why the domestic violence was related to the murder. If you are going to have a trial about domestic violence, go have a trial about domestic violence! This was a MURDER TRIAL!”

          Mental midgets make me despair.

  • baileylamb

    I can’t say I speak for all or most African Americnas, but a lot of us are enjoying the downfall,of Bill (politics of respectability) Cosby. With the cavet that the next H-wood star accused of sexual assault should be treated the same way. People are tired of seeing Chris Brown (scum bucket) being treated differently then Charlie Sean (big sum bucket) . Also some of us would hope that the media would react the same way if most I’d the accusers were dark skin women (someof the woemn hurt by Cosby are light skin non white women). You know, no more Anita Hills.

    • Ennis Demeter

      I HATE how everyone acts like Charlie Sheen is just an adorable rascal. That man is terrifyingly violent.

  • fiftyfifty1

    The media has never portrayed his victims as all white. In fact a good number of the victims who have come forward are black and this fact is typically mentioned in the media stories. Some of them were semi-prominent models or actresses at the time, others were unknown students. Cosby was an equal opportunity rapist it seems.
    The level of public outcry is not because the media is reinforcing the “Black rapist/White victim” trope. It’s because Cosby himself was always so careful to portray himself as very feminist and upstanding in both his characters and in real life. He was forever lecturing to the black community that they needed to be more “respectable” and stop playing into stereotypes with their behavior. And the whole time he was a serial rapist.

    • baileylamb


    • Cobalt

      I think the scope, duration, and hypocrisy (especially the hypocrisy) is a much bigger driver for the news coverage than race.

      Politicians that campaign on “family values” that subsequently get caught with their pants down with a young, gay, prostitute get a lot more, and more negative, media exposure than politicians who don’t turn other people’s sex lives into platforms.

      Cosby portrayed himself, on TV and in life, as an upstanding moral leader. The contrast with reality is what’s amplifying the shock waves more than anything else.

      • Stephanie

        The Duggars came to mind when you said this.

        • Cobalt

          They got away with as little attention as they did by silencing the victims.

      • Liz Leyden

        It kills me how some people supported former NY governor Spitzer after his prostitution scandal. As Attorney General, he was New York state’s highest law enforcement official. He built his reputation busting prostitution rings and money launderers, and the whole time he was hiring prostitutes and laundering money.

    • sdsures

      Unfortunately, serial sex offenders are very, VERY good at putting on a facade of respectability. 🙁 (insert personal experience of being a victim of one here) Impossibility to prosecute still hurts me.

  • Zornorph

    I think what bothers me about this whole media pile-on is this whole thing that everybody insists that I MUST be outraged and never listen to Bill Cosby again. Honestly, if I limited my entertainment choices to work only produced by nice people, I’d have a lot less to entertain me. I consider Tom Cruise does far more damage to human lives that Cosby did, if only because of the scale of it, but that won’t stop me from seeing his movies. Sean Penn is a wife-beater, Roman Polanski is also a rapist (on the run!) – where are the people saying that we must never see their movies?
    The Cosby Show was decent enough entertainment – I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it, but if it were on, I’d probably chuckle at the funny parts without obsessing over what the actor did in real life.
    I’ve no doubt Bill Cosby is a rapist – a rather stupid one as he could have gotten all the sex he wanted for free. But that’s not going to stop me from laughing at some of my favorite routines of his. Though I’m certainly never going to pin a medal on the guy.

    • fiftyfifty1

      “I’ve no doubt Bill Cosby is a rapist – a rather stupid one as he could have gotten all the sex he wanted for free. ”
      Yeah, but he didn’t want to have sex. He wanted to drug and rape. That was his thing.

      • Zornorph

        Undoubtedly he liked doing it with women who were knocked out. I just don’t understand that urge, but obviously it was real.

      • Ennis Demeter

        Yes. Decent human beings stop feeling horny when they find themselves scaring/hurting/ taking advantage of another human being.

        • Cobalt

          Yes and no. I don’t think decency is necessarily having a “safe” or “approved” list of turn-ons. It’s managing whatever turn-ons you do have in a way that respects others autonomy. If you find unconsciousness sexy, that’s fine. If you act on that feeling by unconsentually making people unconscious in order to unconsentually touch them, that’s evil.

          Humans sexuality can be all over the map, but the part that really matters is consent. Somewhere, there is a potential partner that’s into the other half of whatever anyone is into, and that’s what FetLife is for.

          • Roadstergal

            Exactly this. If you have rape fantasies, you can find a partner who will get a kick out of play-acting them with you. A responsible person will look for a complementary kinkster.

          • Ennis Demeter

            People can fantasize whatever you want, but I will never think it’s ok to hurt someone for sexual gratification, even with permission. Somethings should be repressed.

          • rosewater1

            As someone who has been a part of the BDSM lifestyle for nearly 10 years….I politely and respectfully disagree. There is a universe of difference between battering and abusing someone against their will with no consent. That is criminal behavior. If it is practiced in the name of BDSM…it’s wrong and should be prosecuted.

            BDSM when done correctly is about satisfying the need for pain to heighten pleasure. It has been done for centuries and is being done today. People from all walks of life do this.

            If it’s not okay for YOU to be hurt in the name of pleasure…that is your right. Please…don’t say that this should be repressed. It’s not a shameful criminal activity.

            I say this as a survivor of a an abusive BDSM relationship. The caring and compassion I’ve found in my current relationship helped me heal. I don’t think I’d be the person I am if I’d repressed my desires.

            My apologies for the wordy derail. but, this subject is very close to my heart. i couldn’t let it go without replying.

          • Cobalt

            It’s not permission for one person to hurt another. It’s a consensual agreement to touch and be touched according to and with respect for the participants’ mutual desires.

  • SporkParade

    Well, there was one other person whose alleged sexual crimes got this much attention. Michael Jackson. Huh.

    • Zornorph

      Yeah, but he was white!

      • SporkParade

        Just because this is the internet and there are no facial expressions or intonation here, you ARE joking, right?

        • Zornorph

          Only sort of… 🙂

      • baileylamb

        I wince at that since the autopsy did reveal that MJ had that skin disease. One acceptable treatment for it is a total bleaching (not the right term). It takes a lot to walk around with patchy skin (like that model does). After changing his skin, I can see how an artist might just say f it and change other things as well.

        Also I had a friend in grade school that lived with MJ around the time of the first allegations (her dad wanted to be a country singer).

    • Liz Leyden

      What about Mike Tyson? He went to prison for raping a 21-year-old. It doesn’t seem to have affected his boxing or acting careers.

      • Ennis Demeter

        R Kelly.

  • Wanted-To-Be-Rudy-Or-Darlene

    I think it’s gotten so much attention in the media because so many of us loved the Huxtable family. If these accusations were against Michael Landon or John Goodman we’d be hearing just as much about them.

    • FrequentFlyer

      Yes. Cliff, Pa, and Dan would never do something like that, but they are not real people. I guess it’s easy for a lot of us to forget that, and we don’t always remember to separate the actor from the character. We see the scripted person in our homes once a week and feel like we know them, but we can’t really know the real person who has the same face. You can be sure of what a tv character will or won’t do, but you never know with actual people. I guess that’s why people seem so surprised when celebrities do terrible things. We have false familiarity.

      • Zornorph

        Yeah, Michael Landon supposedly wasn’t very nice to his real family. Of course, he was a werewolf, so what do you expect?

        • FrequentFlyer

          I remember reading about Michael Landon treating his family in ways that Pa Ingalls would not approve of at all. But, like you say, he was a werewolf.

  • Until this cover, I did not know the race of any of the women Cosby assaulted. And, to be honest, during Cosby’s incarnation as the cuddly and wise Dr. Huxtable, what impressed me was that his “family” and himself, as portrayed on TV were so white and middle class. “See, we’re folks just like everyone else” — although I think that, during the era of the TV show, the number of black middle class and successful professionals was still quite limited in the US, relative to the number of blacks in the US.

    Would Cosby’s fall from grace, his unmasking as sexual predator when he had so carefully cultivated his identity as a man of integrity, have been more or less ballyhooed if he had assaulted only black women? Isn’t it that he committed rape the essential thing here? I didn’t know, and don’t care, what the race of his victims is.

  • Medwife

    One thing that strikes me about the ny post picture is that the choice of filter makes all the women look white. I didn’t notice until I realized one of the women has an Afro and looked closer. Or is it just me?

    • Azuran

      I agree, I few of them looks like they could be women of colour or mixed.

      • Medwife

        There definitely are non-white women in the group but I had to really study the picture to see them. The overall impression to me was white women.

        • Daleth

          That is very, very weird. Why did the NY Mag photographer do it that way?

          • NoLongerCrunching

            Because of what Dr. Amy wrote above.

          • FrequentFlyer

            Could they think it makes a “better” story if all the victims seem white? More anger/disgust= more sales. That would certainly go along with Dr. Amy’s point about the racial trope.

          • An Actual Attorney

            I suspect it was to make race stand out less, and to “uniform” the women. The fact that people may read many of the women as white when they are not, or just default to that assumption, is, IMHO, about the pervasiveness of racism and it’s corollary, white=default.

          • Daleth

            What possible purpose could be served by making the women look “uniform”-ly white?

          • An Actual Attorney

            My point was they don’t. They only look white, if you assume in the absence of other information (ie, in a black and white photo without hairstyle info) that someone is white. That, in itself, is racist, and not on the photographer or magazine.

          • Cobalt

            It’s not making them look white. It’s making them all uniformly visible, a human wall of stark light and shadow. Highlighting their faces shows off their expressions, blacking out their clothes takes their bodies out of view.

          • Daleth

            “Highlighting” the face of a brown-skinned person does not have to mean “lightening it so that it looks like she has the same skin tone as the white women on either side of her.” That’s just, in this context, messed up.

          • Cobalt

            They made them all the same. Some of the lighter skinned women are presented as darker than they actually are. Choosing a lighter GRAY for the faces means more detail can be shown than if a darker gray was used. A uniformly darker gray would also have reduced contrast with the darker colors used to de-emphasize their clothing.

            They made them all a uniform tone of gray, not turned mocha to peach. The choice of uniform tone and grayscale, faces highlighted but other features obscured, removes all the easy surface markers of race. Because it’s not about race, it’s about women, about survivors of sexual violence, about voices instead of bodies.

  • DebraB

    One extremely powerful trope that emerged from that picture last night is the Twitter hashtag #TheEmptyChair. Hundreds of people saying that that chair represents them – the victims of rape unable to come forward because of fear, intimidation or just not being believed. Some so fearful they made their statements privately to be posted by someone else.

    • Roadstergal

      Yes – if anything can be more generally taken from this…

  • jenn

    I only hope that none of those women are lying to increase their public image. If there is one in the bunch, it will discredit them all. And every other survivor. As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I had to fight an uphill battle to be believed by everyone from the cops who thought I was lying to friends and family who asked me what I was wearing. I have known women who have lied about rape to further their own agenda, be it a better grade in school or being ashamed of a sexual act they didn’t want to disclose as consensual to a doctor.

    • Ennis Demeter

      The reason why law enforcement and friends and family don’t believe victims isn’t because they’ve become jaded from so many lying women. Women who lie about being raped don’t tend to make police reports, and they don’t tend to name specific suspects. Even the famous Rolling Stone fiasco wasn’t about a real man, although it did smear a fraternity.

      The reason why they doubt victims, in my opinion, is that 1) good old fashioned misogyny 2) because it’s easier to dismiss and minimize than face the terrible, huge truth about many, many, many men and boys in our society, and in every society. A lot of them have learned a hideous hate and contempt of women, and feel entitled to their bodies, and no one stops them.

      • Roadstergal

        I agree. The epidemic isn’t women lying about being raped, it’s women not wanting to talk about being raped because they’ll get blamed/they can’t prove it to the standards demanded/they don’t want their personal lives yanked into the public sphere. Because it wasn’t ‘legitimate rape,’ because it was someone they knew, because they might have had a few drinks, because it was someone they’d had sex with in the past so therefore they can’t be raped by them… etc.

        • demodocus

          And then there’s sexual assault, which is seen as lesser, just because no actual penetration occurred.
          Strictly speaking, my husband was sexually assaulted, but they chose not to pursue because he was 18 yo east coaster, his attacker was from the west coast, and the incident was in Chicago at a blindy convention. Too many juristidictions and it would be very hard to prove that he said “no”.

    • KeeperOfTheBooks

      I would go so far as to say that if, and only if, there is sufficient evidence to determine that a person lied about being raped and named/accused a particular person, and *if* the accuser was not in some way mentally incapacitated to the point that they couldn’t understand the gravity of their actions, then the false accuser should get the sort of jail time and record that the falsely accused could have expected if they were convicted.
      At the same time, we need to better prioritize justice for those people who are raped (yep, it happens to men, too). The way the justice system in this country handles that sort of thing is, generally speaking, pretty disgraceful.