In Defense of Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby is in the news again due to a recent comment he made in regards to the George Zimmerman case. In an interview given on Tuesday the actor, comedian, and author said:
“The racial stuff goes into a whole bunch of discussion which has stuff that you can’t prove.” Cosby continued, “You can’t prove somebody is a racist unless they really come out and do the act and is found to be that”
Many people are upset with Cosby. And I absolutely hear you. When I first heard that Mr. Cosby had commented on this case images of self-hating, respectability politics swirled in my head but in this instance, Cosby is right.
We have to understand the definitions of these terms. The term racism is thrown around too often these days in inappropriate situations. Racism is defined as prejudice plus power. That means someone calling you the n-word is not racist. It’s prejudiced, but it’s not racist. Someone not offering you a job because they view you as less than because of your race is racist. It’s the power piece that is so critical. Differentiating between prejudice, discrimination, and racism is pretty difficult and it’s generally only talked about in academia (which is another problem unto itself) so this mistake is a common and understandable one. How can one articulate his oppression if they don’t have the language?
Now, let’s be clear: I absolutely believe that George Zimmerman is racist. He followed Trayvon Martin because he was a black male and Zimmerman associates blackness with criminality. His thought process alone was prejudiced but his actions made him racist. The system that acquitted Zimmerman because the belief that his fear of an unarmed black child was “understandable” is racist. The fact that six jurors were chosen and not one was African American is racist. And most importantly, the fact that the jurors’ personal prejudices and fears were allowed to prevail over fact is racist. Do you see how this is a system? This is also the reason why whites that claim reverse racism when a person of color makes a mean comment about their race are ridiculous. Racism is a system of oppression. It is not a mean or insensitive comment or thought.
Let’s give another example. A friend and I were driving in Baltimore City the other day when another car cut her off. She stated, clearly frustrated, “Uh, probably an Asian driver.” Her comments were prejudiced and might hurt an Asian or she heard them but it wasn’t racist. However, if my friend was a congresswoman and introduced legislation that made it harder for Asian Americans to get a license because she felt that they were bad drivers then that would be racist. When your prejudices and patterns of discrimination are given power or large influence it becomes racist.
This is precisely why the jurors, in my opinion, were racist. This jury was in no way impartial.
George Zimmerman was given a jury who had as much if not more irrational fear of Black males than he did, so if put in the same situation they likely would have shot him too. The prejudices were suddenly given power when they were asked to sit on a jury that decided whether or not a known killer would go free.
Terms aside, it’s important for us to grieve this loss. There has been a lot of talking about thoughts and actions but not enough about feelings. A child is dead. Our justice system did not provide his family with justice nor closure. I am angry. I am disappointed, frustrated, and hurt. I am scared. Let’s set the respectability politics aside for a moment and keep it real. I feel scared and helpless and I worry that my words won’t be enough—but they are all I have so, in defense of Mr. Cosby, let’s keep our terms straight.