Hefty donations and scholarships benefiting historically black schools have not remedied – and at this point seemingly cannot clean up— the charring left on Bill Cosby’s burnt house of a legacy. HBCU disentanglement from the Cosby brand shows these institutions will not co-sign a man whose hands cut checks to students in public and drugged women, for sexual gain, in private.
As of press time, Cosby’s accusers total nearly 50 women. They are from different backgrounds and professions. Their stories are eerily similar. The women became part of the collective conscience, which includes admissions from Cosby’s infamous 2005 deposition.
The New York Times reported Cosby’s cavalier responses to sexual assault accusations generally, and that he specifically said, “I think I’m a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things, whatever you want to call them” when deposed.
Cosby emerges as a maligned figure for not only disparaging black people in classist ways after building his wealth through black cultural capital, but also for holding himself out as a moral authority, and allegedly violating so many women.
While sexual abuse allegations too often devolve into character assassination of victims, skeptics cared more about the accusations after a victim with whom many sympathized or empathized came forward. Beverly Johnson, a black supermodel with a blemish-free reputation, publicly accused Cosby of drugging her.
Johnson told People Magazine, “I hope as, we live in a time in our nation where conversations on race, sexuality and gender are at hand, that we have the difficult conversations with our friends and family so that it is commonplace to defend everyone’s right to be protected from all predators, no matter their status or accomplishments.”
Sexual assault, and drugging people, should be universally unacceptable. Yet, masses criticized the women because America has a history of disproportionately imprisoning black defendants-turned-exonerees, after ruining wrongfully convicted people’s lives and permanently altering their societal standing.
Black communities remember men like Darryl Hunt, a black man accused of raping and murdering a white woman. Hunt suffered nearly 20 years of imprisonment despite an absence of physical evidence connecting him to the crimes. He was exonerated after another man confessed.
Some skeptics view Cosby as black man who made it and was only slapped with sexual abuse allegations because of his prominence and deep pockets. For these people, racial self-preservation concerns and anti-woman skepticism inspire questions more hinged on “why now” than “how could one ever.”
Amidst the Cosby chaos, Central State University and Spelman College sent clear messages. They affirm women. Providing agency-eliminating substances to facilitate sex is wrong. Exploiting people’s vulnerabilities is wrong. Despite Cosby’s $2 million donation to CSU, the university recently removed his name from its mass communications building sign.
In the 1980s, Bill and Camille Cosby donated $20 million to Spelman College. The gift was the largest individual donation made to an HBCU, at the time. In December 2014, Spelman suspended a Cosby-endowed professorship. In late July, the college announced termination of the professorship.
Cosby is noted for donations and cultivating leadership positions at colleges and universities across the nation. His history of prominent philanthropy in higher education make Central State and Spelman’s moves more powerful.
Further, CSU and Spelman demonstrate situational sensitivity bolstered by women’s leadership. Mary Schmidt Campbell is president of Spelman, the noted women’s college. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond is CSU’s president.
Rape is a rampant national problem. Every107 seconds an American is raped, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. The network reported nearly 70% of sexual assaults are not reported to police, and more often than not the attacker knows the victim.
A major study reported HBCUs have lower instances of sexual assault than other schools. Some attribute lower numbers to underreporting, which happens across the board. Others note a familial environment can cause HBCU students to handle each other with more care.
University of Pennsylvania Ph.D candidate and research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions Felecia Commodore wrote, “When students see each other as extensions of themselves and fellow members of a community, as opposed to individuals with which they have no connection, it is understandable there might be less incentive to cause harm to another member of your community or your family.”
Community is pushed forward through Black Lives Matter and offshoot movements. We know black spaces have value and black contributions enrich everyone. However, black morality matters too. As schools of varied compositions sever ties with Bill Cosby, their example shows leaders prioritizing important narratives too often left in shadows.