Bill Cosby’s legal team was never afraid to invoke America’s history of anti-black racism. During the closing arguments of his trial on sexual assault charges —which just ended with a guilty verdict on three counts of indecent sexual assault — they referred to the #MeToo movement as a “witch hunt” and likened the men who had been accused of criminal behavior to the victims of lynchings. Earlier, they had sought sympathy for Cosby by suggesting he was the victim of the racist justice system.
Many of the complaints against Cosby predated #MeToo, but he became the first celebrity to be tried during this era of heightened awareness. While Andrea Constand, whose accusations led to the recent trial, is white, his dozens of accusers over the years were women of many races. The judge allowed testimony from five other women besides Constand as the prosecution set out to prove Cosby’s pattern of sexual predation.
The racial elements of the trial offer an opportunity to recall that the first “me too” movement — literally using those words — was launched a decade ago by an African-American woman, Tarana Burke.
Indeed, it’s important to recognize that years of black women’s anti-rape and anti-sexual assault activism have helped produce our current robust national conversation about sexual violence. It may not be a full moment of reckoning just yet, but the tireless organizing of black women has made it possible for us to have more productive conversations about rape culture and the meaning of consent.
Long before the Bill Cosby trial, black women were at the forefront of anti-rape activism
There is a decades-long modern history of black women’s anti-rape activism. Anti-rape activists such as Rosa Parks are part of a long tradition of black women advocating for the victims/survivors of sexual violence. Contemporary anti-sexual violence activism is deeply and directly indebted to the formation of organizations such as A Long Walk Home, Black Women’s Blueprint, INCITE Women of Color of Against Violence, and We Are the 44% Coalition. These groups center on the experiences of women of color while providing tools and strategies for ending sexual violence against all people.
Whether it’s demanding that R. Kelly finally be held accountable for his alleged predatory behavior or organizing to support the victims of Daniel Holtzclaw, the former police officer convicted of raping or assaulting eight black women in Oklahoma City, black women have been in the trenches of anti-rape activism. They have reframed conversations about sexual violence to account for the distinct experience of black women, girls, trans, and gender nonbinary people.
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