Bill Cosby Is Not a Political Prisoner

Efforts to portray the comedian—who was sentenced on Tuesday to a minimum of three years in prison for sexual assault—as the victim of a racist system deploy a peculiar logic.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

On Tuesday afternoon, the actor and comedian Bill Cosby was formally designated a sexually violent predator and sentenced to three to 10 years in prison for drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand in his home outside of Philadelphia in 2004. Cosby was denied bail and ordered to prison immediately. The man once known as “America’s Dad” left the Norristown, Pennsylvania, courtroom in handcuffs, making his departure in an undone white shirt and red suspenders.

After Cosby was taken into custody, his publicist, Andrew Wyatt, made a string of distasteful but revelatory remarks. “I believe and think it is important to point out that this has been the most racist and sexist trial in the history of the United States,” Wyatt said, before suggesting that Cosby’s accusers were “white women who make money off of accusing black men of being sexual predators.” Later, Wyatt went on to make a particularly bizarre but since-repeated claim: “They persecuted Jesus and look what happened,” he added. “Not saying Mr. Cosby’s Jesus, but we know what this country has done to black men for centuries.”

Wyatt’s comparison, blasphemous though it may be, neatly crystallizes the tenor of the support Cosby has received in the wake of the accusations against him (and the ensuing criminal trial). While many have hailed the comedian’s conviction and sentencing as a victory for his accusers and for the #MeToo movement writ large, Cosby has also enjoyed an outpouring of sympathy—or at least skepticism—from people who believe his downfall to be the result of a racist conspiracy. Wyatt’s comments may be provocative, but they are not new. “What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated,” the actor’s Cosby Show co-star Phylicia Rashad said in 2015 following reports of allegations against Cosby. “I don’t know why or who’s doing it, but it’s the legacy. And it’s a legacy that is so important to the culture.”

Following the sentencing, many others mourned the putative loss of Cosby, a man whose primary contribution to “the culture”—meaning black culture in America—was the same paternalistic veneer that shrouded his predation. Though many still idolize Heathcliff Huxtable, the genial Cosby Show patriarch, the real-life Cosby antagonized the very population that most fervently defends him. In his infamous “Pound Cake” speech, he trafficked in antiblack stereotypes—including those about incarceration. “Cosby sought to be a moral example to the black poor,” my colleague Adam Serwer wrote following the star’s April conviction. “Instead, he ended up proving just how much those with wealth, fame, and power can get away with.”

Seeing Cosby suffer the consequences of his actions put many black celebrities and pundits on the defensive. “1 of the saddest things I’ve ever seen!” the comedian D. L. Hughley captioned a repost of Cosby’s mug shot on Tuesday. On Twitter, Hughley, a black man, compared Cosby to President Donald Trump and the embattled Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and then wrote that he “can’t wait for the day when #Justice doesn’t mean #JustUs.” (Though both stand accused of sexual assault, neither Trump nor Kavanaugh has yet faced criminal proceedings.) Hughley was not the only black commentator to express a sense of racial ire after Cosby’s sentencing. Following the news, the television host Roland Martin shared an article about Shafeeq Sheikh, a former Texas doctor who raped his sedated patient. “This is still nuts this man has no prison time,” Martin wrote of Sheikh, an apparent comparison to Cosby’s sentence. (Hughley shared the same article, captioned “When #Justice is for #JustUs.”)

There is certainly a kernel of truth in the unifying logic of these remarks. The criminal-justice system, like so many other American institutions, is markedly racist. More than 50 years after the Moynihan Report, a repellent document that shares much in spirit with Cosby’s Pound Cake speech, black families are still disproportionately likely to be separated by discriminatory criminalization. Men of color are most often targeted for solitary confinement. The youths most likely to be tried as adults, and imprisoned for life as a result, are kids of color. “Broken windows” policing, intended to curb serious crime by cracking down on minor offenses, both doesn’t work as crime prevention and endangers the communities to which it is applied. The so-called War on Drugs has targeted black communities and caused irrevocable damage with biased policing, harsh sentencing, and state violence.

But Cosby was not a low-income black man arrested for turnstile jumping on the way to work. He was not a neighborhood sex worker detained by police simply for possessing a condom. He was not a protester pepper sprayed while decrying an injustice perpetrated by the state. Bill Cosby is an unrepentant sexual predator who was tried and sentenced according to due process. He is not a political hero. If the prison system is still the only widely accepted punishment for serial offenders who present a danger to the public, then Cosby’s actions merit his sentencing.

To suggest that Cosby’s conviction and sentencing are invalid not because he didn’t commit a crime but because other (white) rapists have gotten away with their crimes is a peculiar logic. It reveals a disturbing impulse: the desire to weigh black men’s social standing against white men’s, even to the detriment of all women. If Cosby were to (further) evade punishment for his crimes, would that be a mark of racial progress? It’s an uncomfortable thought, a callous calculus that loses sight of the humanity at the heart of any pursuit of justice. Demanding accountability of black abusers is not an inherently antiblack proposition.

Perhaps the most troubling comparison made in response to the Cosby trial is one that draws on a much older conflict. This week, a tweet from the day after Cosby’s conviction began recirculating. It draws a baffling comparison between Cosby and Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman whose false accusation of the black teenager Emmett Till in 1955 led a group of white men to kill the boy for daring to address her: “If you all are going to lock Bill Cosby up at the age of 80, I need y’all to put Carolyn Byant [sic] Donham at age 83 in jail for accessory to murder for having Emmett till killed and CONFESSING in 2017 #stolen.”

While the tweet suggests that Bryant Donham deserves prison time just as Cosby does, the core of the sentiment conflates Cosby with Till. The idea that Cosby, (black) America’s fictive father, is being “#stolen” from “us” (namely, black people) in the same way that an innocent teenager was taken from his family is galling. The tweet, amid the countless other statements repackaging similar logic, attempts to skewer the long American tradition of portraying black men as hypersexual brutes. In naming white women as Cosby’s accusers despite the fact that some of them are women of color, Andrew Wyatt drew from this same strategy.

Challenging the social dynamics of a case with a white accuser and a black defendant is an understandable instinct. Just last year, Bryant Donham admitted that her account of Till making an advance was false, a lie that only compounded the collective pain of losing a young black boy to a racist mob. (Till’s memory was also disrespected earlier this week by the actor Jesse Williams, who attempted to promote his directorial debut, Till, by meme-ing photos of Mamie Till-Mobley, the child’s mother, mourning her son. In both instances, the boy’s life and death were deployed as rhetorical tools in service of another black man’s image.)

It’s not inaccurate to note that racism affects how black men’s sexuality is perceived, or how they are sentenced in courts of law. But there are countless black men in America whose interactions with the criminal-justice system have been marred by the specter of racist policies, practices, and ideologies. There are innumerable cases of racist double standards in sentencing, even in sex crimes (which are notably underprosecuted). Bill Cosby’s story is simply not one of them. He is a man whose prestige finally stopped overshadowing his predation. To lose sight of that is its own injustice.