Disgraced former talk show host Tavis Smiley, to his credit, hasn’t ― at least so far ― publicly screamed race to battle back against the sexual abuse charges leveled against him. The damage to his reputation has been swift and brutal. The charges got him bounced for the moment from PBS, dropped like a hot potato by Walmart and a scrap of his upcoming multi-city theatrical production based on the last year of Dr. King’s life. There’s even been talk of scrubbing his name from a scholarship program at his alma mater, the University of Indiana.
It’s the swift-ness and brutal-ness of Smiley’s plunge from the pinnacle that ignited the by-now-ritual scream from many blacks that Smiley and other prominent blacks who are plopped on the sexual abuse hot seat are being hit with the old racial double standard.
The line goes like this. The allegations of sexual abuse against wealthy and prominent white guys are one day in, one day out news, quickly hushed up, and white men aren’t pilloried, stereotyped and perennially typecast as the eternal symbols of sexual decadency, degeneracy and immorality. If they lose their jobs or positions, other than their slighted tarnished personal reputation, they still slip away with their wealth intact.
Not so, with the Smileys. They are tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, dumped and held up as proof of the sexual malignancy of black men. The defense of sorts is almost always punctuated with the shout that that this is just another ploy to malign and drag down prominent, influential black men.
Saying this makes even less sense this go-round. The parade of big name, white, well-entrenched, seeming-august pillars of the media, entertainment and sports world pulverized from their alleged sexual abuses reads like a who’s who of the rich and famous. Yes, men such as Matt Lauer; Carolina Panthers owner, Jerry Richardson; and the arch poster boy for sexual deviancy, Harvey Weinstein, won’t exactly be pushing carts in the streets filled with tin cans. However, they are not just disgraced but pariahs in their industries and beyond. They also have in their own perverse way set the new standard of how the media and business world goes after alleged sexual miscreants. They waste no time in showing them the door. This is not likely to change any time soon, nor should it. Wealthy, powerful white men are being toppled from their perch just as swiftly, easily and brutally as black men are when they are alleged to have committed sexual wrongs.
Yet this new reality hasn’t stifled the outcry and private suspicions that somehow alleged white male abusers will get a pass far quicker than alleged black male sexual abusers. Smiley was typical of that when some black defenders repeatedly cited the pivotal role he played in giving many blacks lots of play and exposure on his shows. And before that his widely hailed State of Black America confabs. He’s clearly a brother, some say, who just had to eventually be taken down because of this. We heard the almost identical line with Cosby. That he had to be taken out after he supposedly showed interest in bidding for ownership of NBC.
This is all nonsense. Smiley and Cosby ― and toss in Russell Simmons, too ― have been wined, dined, courted, fawned over and enriched themselves for decades in the media, entertainment and business world. They were almost everyone in those world’s darlings during most of those years. There is and never has been any conspiracy to bring these guys down because of their too-big-for-their-britches position.
Cosby is a textbook example. During his heyday, he worked both sides of the racial street. He broke racial barriers in his dramatic and family comedy series. Though he did not make a public crusade out of his smashing racial barriers, he did not explicitly reject his blackness. His successes in the then supremely hostile medium of TV that had either ignored or viciously stereotyped blacks for decades were regarded as a singular triumph for blacks. This firmly plopped him on the reveled icon pedestal. He solidified his place there when he doled out tens of millions to Spellman and other historically black colleges.
The nagging rumors, lawsuits and settlements for and about Cosby’s sexual romps and abuses were chalked off, even sneered at, as part of the supposedly well-designed template to wreck another black man. The mounting accusations of serial rape, drugging, violence, manipulation, and physical and mental abuse of dozens of women ran off of him with many blacks like water off a duck’s back. Cosby’s weak and self-serving denials were more than enough to cancel out the charges and accusations of his voluminous alleged victims.
Smiley’s defense is that the acts were consensual. Simmons’ defense is no defense and that he’ll devote himself to self-healing. None of this will be enough. Almost certainly, more charges will continue to fly about their behavior. They are simply victims of a time that should have come a long time ago. And this has nothing to do with race.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Obama Legacy (Middle Passage Press) He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.