Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. I just want to warn our listeners that we're about to have a conversation about sexual violence, which may be disturbing to some of you. On Wednesday afternoon, I was, like millions of other Americans, just living life, working, picking up my kid from camp, thinking about dinner. Then my phone buzzed with a news alert.
Reporter: Breaking news. Comedian, Bill Cosby, walking out of prison today after a court vacated his sexual assault conviction saying Cosby's rights were violated.
Melissa: Cosby's release and the way that some of his supporters reacted transformed a regular afternoon into one of those days. Now, those days when a song or a smell or a date on the calendar, flips a sad and angry switch inside of me and all the residual trauma that rape leaves behind, it is having those days that I hate the most. On Thursday, Jami Floyd, the senior editor for the race and justice unit at New York public radio joined me here on The Takeaway. As part of her helpful legal analysis, she also offered this insight.
Jami Floyd: This is why talking about the Cosby case matters. It's not because he's a big celebrity, but the reason it matters is for the reasons you just stated. We have victims here who alleged horrific things happen to them and the system they feel is failing them. As you point out, there are so many Black and brown men in prison who have intersected with the criminal justice system in ways that have failed them.
Melissa: At that moment, Jami's insight made it clear that we need to talk about it. I don't mean a review and a reprise of Mr. Cosby's case. We need to talk about what it means for Black women who are survivors. See, Black men and women experience racial violence at the hands of the state, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, but Black women also endure routine and systematic violence perpetrated by Black men.
Black women only very rarely do to Black men what Anita Hill experienced, but Janae Rice and Rihanna endured, or how Megan Thee Stallion was allegedly harmed and then gaslighted. Of course, the vast majority of Black men are not rapist, but of the one in five Black women who survived rape, the overwhelming majority of us will suffer that violation at the hands of a Black man. Black men are our fathers, our brothers, our sons, our partners, our friends. They're our ACEs, our besties, and the land where we plant so many of our dreams.
At the same time, Black men are a source of suffering and violence in our lives. This brutal duality renders many Black women silent. For every 15 Black women who survive rape, only one will report it to law enforcement. Sisters, we refuse to call the police even when we've been hurt because we so clearly understand the deadly consequences of reinforcing white supremacists lies about Black men's brutality. If there are Black men listening right now with tight jaws and clenched hands ready to remind me of all the burdens that brothers bear, I would just ask you to pause for a moment.
Speaker 4: If you say no, all lives matter. What I would say is I believe that you believe that all lives matter, but because I live the life that I live, I am certain that in this country, not all lives matter.
Speaker 5: I'm 34 years old and it doesn't feel like all lives matter.
Speaker 6: Here's the problem with everyone who says all lives matter. They don't really mean it. Just look at our history.
Melissa: When I say Black women's suffering matters, I need you not to say Black men matter too. We already know. What I need is for you to acknowledge that Black women have a right to publicly name and resist all the violence we experience. I need you to sit with me and listen when I'm having one of those days. To help me try to make sense of this moment for so many Black women is Brittney Cooper, a Rutgers University Associate Professor in the department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her SuperPower. Brittney, how are you doing in the midst of this Cosby news?
Brittney Cooper: Hey, Melissa. I am outraged and heartbroken. I was really flabbergasted with those that chose to support and celebrate this as though some justice had been done and frustrated as I really am at our inability to support and figure out pathways to justice for survivors.
Melissa: I think having that was perhaps the most stressful part of that day to me. Less about what happens in the courts in part, because I don't think of the courts as a space where much justice happens, but that feeling that somehow whatever we were experiencing as Black women who are survivors or women who are survivors or queer folk who are survivors or boys and men who were survivors, that that was irrelevant because of some racial victory over the courts in this moment.
Brittney Cooper: We have to stop saying that because white supremacy has been so brutal and terrible to Black men, that they are owed the right to rape and pillage with impunity. That to me is a perversion of what the struggle for justice has been. One of the things that feels really obvious to me is that Black men should be reckoning with Bill Cosby and should be angry with him because it is Bill Cosby and his actions that he admitted on the record where he drugs and then raped women that fulfills and expands and extends these terrible stereotypes about Black men as sexual predators.
Bill Cosby knows about those stereotypes, supposedly built a career, trying to challenge them and then in his private life, went around really acting as the worst narrative about Black masculinity that tales that white supremacy is fun about that. I don't know why the response from so many brothers is to be mad at Black women when really they should be angry with Bill Cosby.
Melissa: Brittney, I want to point out that perhaps the most famous or now infamous response in support of Mr. Cosby actually didn't come from a Black man, but rather from Phylicia Rashad, his long time costar, and you are a Howard alarm and there was a lot of angst and anxiety about Dean Rashad's response in part because she's been recently appointed as one of the deans at Howard. Would like to speak on that moment?
Brittney Cooper: Look. Sure. The thing that I would say is that as a Howard alarm, we revere Phylicia Rashad and her sister, Debbie Allen, but I was incredibly disappointed at the knee-jerk response to defend Bill Cosby when this was not even a well kept secret. This was an open secret that he abused women, that he did it just as a matter of course. I appreciate the retraction, the statement she made saying that she would support survivors. I think she's going to have to reckon with this with Howard University students who are fierce and who have a gender movement on campus.
I think that that reckoning should occur even though, I welcomed her back to Howard, for sure. Also, we've got to have a conversation about the ways that Black women and women more generally are sometimes complicit and patriarchy. For Black women, sometimes that pressure is about the fact that we have the burden of always trying to put forward the best foot for the race, always trying to make sure that Black men are viewed as upstanding.
We have been charged to be the keepers of our racial story and to be the keepers of our homes, families, all of those things. Certainly, the Cosby narrative, from his show, has been a big part of that narrativization coming out of the last century. I think that that is the legacy that she's trying to support. What we are moving toward is not these fast-style narratives about black respectability anymore, but really starting to say, let's talk about harm, let's talk about the violence that [unintelligible 00:09:19] to so much of our attempts to try to perform all of this respectability. That is where I hope that she will grow in her narrativization of this, seeing herself as a person who precisely because of her gravitas can actually help us to have a better reckoning with this story.
Melissa: I want to talk for a second about justice because-- Again, I want to go back to what it means for Black women who survive any of a variety of aspects of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Black men. We often, overwhelmingly, do not look to the system of criminal justice for justice in part, because we know it has rarely brought justice to Black women, or to our larger communities and families. If I want an abolition of prisons, and I want justice, what is it that I want for rapists, for those who do harm to Black women?
Brittney Cooper: Look, it's a hard question for me, which is why I tell people that I'm on a journey to abolitionism, but I struggle with it in part because I feel like everyone is asking Black women to sacrifice any notions of justice that we might get on the front end because we recognize how unjust the system is to our brothers on its face. I'm asking what happens if we start from a narrative about what it means to keep Black women safe.
At a base level, I think that in an ideal world, what we would have is a situation in which every single day Bill Cosby would have to sit face to face with his accusers, reckon with what he has done to them, listen to their stories, fund therapy for life, think about the careers, the livelihoods, the joy that he has stolen, and then reckoning community with what does it mean to restore that? What does it mean to pay restitution for that? What kinds of doors should be open for that?
Then I think that it means that we got to have a community reckoning with what is causing men in general and Black men in our community context to enact power by violating and raping Black Cis women and Black trans women. Why are they doing that? What is the appeal of being able to enact power on the vulnerable, and why don't Black men understand that when they are so often the victims of unjust enactments of power from white supremacy.
Melissa: Even as we expect and await the work that brothers need to do, I'm also wondering how we might squat up for each other, how Black women and queer folk and survivors of all genders can hold each other on days like those days that so many of us had on Wednesday when we heard that news.
Brittney Cooper: I think that one of the things I've been thinking that I love that Black folks are doing is we're creating our own holidays, it's not just Juneteenth, it's July 16th, is Ida B. Wells and Assata Shakur day. We are creating our own holy days because we recognize the need for that. I think that we really should be figuring out some days of mourning, some days of collective grief, some days where we can sigh together and wail together and scream together and say, your blues line like mine, and look at the level of the weight that I carry.
I hope that we collectively figure out what does it mean to memorialize our need to mourn and to grieve, and to be honest about all of the weight that we carry because the inability to tell the truth about it is killing us. I also think in the end, we got to just be crew and ride for each other, believe each other, listen to each other, protect each other, don't continue to let this go around being an open secret that everybody knows, but nobody's willing to say because they want to protect their neck.
That's not feminist, it's not solidarity, it doesn't protect your sister, and if they're coming for you in the morning, that they're coming for us at night, and we got to keep that ethic, and really decide what we're going to be in solidarity with. Is it our own safety and our own freedom, or is it this Palestinian bargain with a freedom that's about, yes, overturning white supremacy, but then re instantiating the patriarchy? That isn't freedom to me.
Melissa: Thank you for that language of grief. I've been teaching 22 years now, and I haven't ever gone through one semester, not even one where I didn't have a student who disclosed to me and grief is the word that I have to use in that space. I also just want to say thank you to you because you have been my soft place to fall over and over again. You were one of the first people to whom I disclosed and I appreciate you always being my friend and being in my corner in those ways.
Brittney Cooper: I love you.
Melissa: Thank you. I'd love you to Brittney Cooper, co-author of the forthcoming Feminist AF: A Guide to Crushing Girlhood. Thank you.
Brittney Cooper: Thank you.
[00:14:30] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.