In the same week that a historic memorial dedicated to the lynchings of at least 4,000 black men, women, and children in the U.S. made its debut, two prominent black figures have evoked the imagery of black bodies swinging from trees, burning in embers, beaten to pulps, in order to defend against widespread public ridicule and condemnation for their actions. In a statement on Monday, representatives of R. Kelly—who was once married to singer Aaliyah when she was 15 and he was 27, and has been accused of grooming and preying upon underage girls for decades—responded to the growing #MuteRKelly campaign by claiming that the singer is part of a long history of black people who “have been lynched for having sex or being accused of it.” And following a ludicrously misinformed rant on TMZ about slavery being a “choice” on the part of the enslaved, Kanye West wrote in since-deleted tweets: “Kanye vs the media is modern day Willie Lynch theory” and “they hung the most powerful in order to force fear into the others.”
Add Bill Cosby to that list, by way of his wife, Camille. In her first public statement since he was convicted of sexual assault last week, she chastised the media for “mob justice” and compared them to “lynch mobs” while lamenting the family’s tarnished legacy—cancellations of appearances and the syndication of The Cosby Show, revocations of honorary degrees, and so on. She may have one-upped Kelly and West on the gross-mischaracterization-of-a-horrifying-historical-tradition-for-one’s-own-personal-gain front, though. Not content to merely compare the accusations of nearly 60 women and her husband’s subsequent conviction to just any old ritualistic murder of a black person, she trotted out the memory of Emmett Till:
Are the media now the people’s judges and juries? Since when are all accusers truthful? History disproves that…for example, Emmett Till’s accuser immediately comes to mind. In 1955, she testified before a jury of white men in a Mississippi courtroom that a 14-year-old African American boy had sexually assaulted her, only to later admit several decades later in 2008 that her testimony was false. A more recent example is the case of Darryl Hunt, an African American who in 1984 was wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of a white woman, only to have DNA evidence establish in 1994 that he did not commit the crime. Nonetheless he was held in prison until 2004, serving almost twenty years behind bars, until the true rapist confessed to the crimes.
She continued, “How much longer will we, the majority of the people, tolerate judicial, executive, legislative, media and corporate abuses of power?” (Oh yes, she also framed this statement in the style of the Constitution.) And: “If they can do this to Mr. Cosby, they can do so to anyone.” (Wait—does Bill insist that even his own wife refer to him as Mr. Cosby?)
Camille has never wavered in her public support of her husband—who, again, has been accused by dozens upon dozens of women, some of them black—and for that, history will probably not be too kind to her. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie wrote earlier this week, “Rhetoric that compares harsh criticism to a “lynch mob” obscures far more than it illuminates.” In the case of people like Kelly, West, and the Cosbys, it does that, and then some: It trivializes the memories of the thousands who never even had the luxury of proclaiming their innocence before being actually strung up, beaten up, and burnt up by literal white, racist mobs.