A Pennsylvania Judge declared a mistrial in the sexual assault trial of, actor-comedian, Bill Cosby, after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on Cosby’s guilt or innocence. The jury of 10 whites and 2 African-Americans deliberated for six days, but could not reach a consensus on whether Cosby committed a sexual act on the alleged victim, Andrea Constand, without her consent. The prosecutor has announced that the case will be tried again before another jury.
It is unclear whether the racial make-up of the jury contributed to the outcome of the deliberations. Before jury selection in the trial began, Cosby alleged racism influenced the filing of charges and the many sexual assault accusations against him. This was a blatant attempt to introduce race into Cosby’s narrative of why he was accused of numerous sexual assaults. Regardless of how the next jury rules on the issue of Cosby’s legal culpability, Cosby should not be allowed to shift the focus from the sexual assault allegations against him to issues of race.
Like many African-Americans, I acknowledge that we have a history of racism and discrimination in this country. Although African-Americans make up 12-13% percentage of the U.S. population, a 2011, Justice Department study estimated 1 in 3 black males is likely to experience incarceration in their lifetime. Some critics have argued that this estimate is inflated and based on outdated census records. I am not a statistician, but I am an attorney who has represented incarcerated individuals, and the black male inmate prison population is clearly disproportionate to representation in the general population.
But Cosby’s legal troubles are not about race. Mr. Cosby’s career transcended race; he inhabited a world where the rich and famous garner power, respect and privilege, but it is also a world where the powerful can take advantage of the less powerful, oftentimes with impunity. In the Cosby scandal, almost 60 women, black and white, have come forward to accuse Cosby of using his celebrity status to befriend them as a prelude to initiating unwanted sexual contact.
Mr. Cosby denies the allegations against him, but there are too many accusers who allege abuse to accept Cosby’s denials without close scrutiny. Unfortunately, because of the statute of limitations applicable to the acts alleged it is uncertain whether Cosby will face criminal or civil liability for these alleged assaults, and regardless of the eventual outcome of the trial it will only address the issue of Cosby’s culpability in one case. It will not resolve the issue of whether he has a legal or moral responsibility to his many accusers.
The Cosby scandal makes us uncomfortable, because it shines an intense light on issues that are often ignored. Sexual abuse and harassment may be as American as the flag and apple pie. A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study released in 2011 estimated that I out of 5 women in this country will be a victim of sexual assault.
Many have asked why Cosby’s accusers did not report his alleged actions when they occurred, and if these acts in fact occurred how was Mr. Cosby able to get away with allegedly abusing women for decades? Many of the accusers admitted they were afraid that accusations against a powerful man would not be believed; their fears were not unfounded. Cosby and his supporters accused the women of telling falsehoods to extort money from Mr. Cosby. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for victims of sexual abuse or harassment to have their allegations dismissed as false.
Frequently, we fail to provide effective options for reporting gender based abuse, and deny the legitimacy of reported abuse. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), relying on a Justice Department survey, reports that only 344 of every 1,000 rapes is reported, and out of 1,000 reported rapes 994 perpetrators will go free. Similarly, a Cosmopolitan magazine survey in 2015 indicated that 71 % of female employees failed to report sexual harassment on the job.
Abusive behavior usually occurs in private, where the only witnesses are the victim and the perpetrator. Many women fear retaliation and are afraid to challenge a perpetrator who has more power or status. The failure to provide women with effective options to report abuse and protection from retaliation has a chilling effect on the willingness of women to come forward with abuse allegations. The entire country became painfully aware of this when female employees acknowledged that the working environment at Fox News was so hostile women were afraid to speak out about harassment that was so blatant a male co-anchor allegedly subjected his female counterpart to harassing and degrading treatment on air.
Perhaps the most unfortunate result of our failure to appropriately respond to abuse allegations is it allows the alleged perpetrators to claim abusive behavior is acceptable. Executives at Fox News deluded themselves into believing sexual harassment was not a problem even though they were paying out millions of dollars to settle harassment claims, and Bill Cosby continues to maintain that his sexual contact with Andrea Constand and scores of women who claim he assaulted them was consensual, even after he admitted in a 2006 deposition that in certain sexual encounters he gave women drugs that arguably affected their ability to consent.
It has been sad and disappointing to watch the downfall of Bill Cosby who was once described as “America’s Dad,” but the accusations against Cosby forced this country to confront the real scandal: women are still subjected to sexual abuse and harassment, and the perpetrators are often people they know. We don’t need to wait until the next celebrity sex abuse scandal goes viral on the internet to focus more attention and resources on this issue. We need to create a climate in this country where women are encouraged to report abuse without fear of retaliation, and we need to make a real commitment to use existing civil and criminal laws to zealously combat sexual abuse and harassment wherever it exists.