An Intersectionality Problem

Over at LGM, Scott Lemieux has been following the Cosby arrest story. It’s a touchy topic on the sight as at least two of the black commenters have a strongly different perspective on how to think about Cosby. It’s very complicated and has gone over probably tens of posts and hundreds of comments. The discussion gets very heated and some things get lost.

In the latest post on the topic, ThrottleJockey complains that cited writer, Diana Moskovitz is “strongly biased” against blacks:

The estimable Diana Moskovitz again, back in her white hood and calling black men rapists in 2016 same as she did in 2015. And LGM all too happy to go along with her race baiting.

(Ok, “strongly biased” is a bit of a weak paraphrase. Note, Moskovitz is a white woman.)

Read the thread for a bunch of grotty back and forth. I certainly don’t think ThrottleJockey’s first claim, read literally, is true. It is also the case that Moskovitz covers a lot of black male sexual assault accusations, usually from a sympathetic to the accuser point of view. (She has more complex views, as I discuss in this comment. She also didn’t handle Trevon Harris’s case very well, though it’s complicated. Go to the comments for details.)

The point I’ve been pondering starts with a simple, pretty undeniable observation (hat tip for the excellent formulation to Lord Jesus Perm):

The same system that is–by design–rigged against blacks is also–by design–rigged against women.

On the one hand, we have disproportionate investigations, arrests, convictions, and sentencing plus the “Myth of the Black Rapist“, and on the other we have the very low rate of false rape accusations, the lack of investigation and prosecution, and all of the metric ton of crap that false on women who report being raped. This is, obviously, a huge oversimplification still, even for just these two poles. Black women have a different complex experience than white women, for example. I strongly recommend reading Jewel Allison’s article:

Like my friend, many people have invoked this long and horrific history when examining the sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby. Many black folks feel suspicious, agitated and afraid when they see white women charging an African American man with sexual violence. Admitting that Cosby is a rapist would feel like giving in to white America’s age-old stereotypes about black men. It would be akin to validating fears that African American men are lustful and violent. It would be taking away one of our greatest and most inspiring role models – one many African Americans feel we can’t afford to lose.

And Beverly Johnson’s

As I wrestled with the idea of telling my story of the day Bill Cosby drugged me with the intention of doing God knows what, the faces of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other brown and black men took residence in my mind.

As if I needed to be reminded. The current plight of the black male was behind my silence when Barbara Bowman came out to tell the horrific details of being drugged and raped by Cosby to the Washington Post in November. And I watched in horror as my longtime friend and fellow model Janice Dickinson was raked over the coals for telling her account of rape at Cosby’s hands. Over the years I’ve met other women who also claim to have been violated by Cosby. Many are still afraid to speak up. I couldn’t sit back and watch the other women be vilified and shamed for something I knew was true.

among others.

Obviously, the decision whether to speak out about one’s assault is deeply personal. But this tension between feeding one myth (by speaking truth) or the other (by staying silent) is a classic double bind. There can be institutionally mediated effects as well as direct ones. For example, I think the concern Allison and Johnson had that revealing Cosby’s wrongdoing would have greater negative ramifications for their community is very reasonable. Perverser things have happened.

When people not directly involved discuss or report on these matters, there can be unintended consequences due to the surrounding context. For example, when I was skimming through (a small part of) Moskovitz’s body of work, I was struck by how many articles there were about accusations of wrongdoing, esp. sexual assault, by black male athletes. She definitely doesn’t exclusively report on such, and my sample is small. Conversely, ThrottleJockey does seem to get close to suggesting that women reporting assault are probably lying. (It’s fairly complicated, again. And obviously, this is an impression on my part. Perhaps it’s better to say that it’s easy to see how someone might read them that way.)

Now, some people in the thread asserted that someone covering a field dominated by black men is going to report more on black male failings. This seems unsatisfactory to me. I think that that’s true, but it also ignores the fact that the system is, by design, rigged against blacks. Of course, failing to pursue accusations of rape gives cover to rapists and discourages women who have been attacked.

I don’t have any recipe for fixing anything. I think that probably the best we can do is to not be complacent about the intersections: The system is rigged. It’s rigged in many ways that interact in complex ways. It’s worth making positive efforts to acknowledge and work against the many forms of rigging. This isn’t typically easy or always psychologically possible.