Why are rich and famous black men convicted and accused of sexual violence calling themselves the victims of lynchings?
In recent days both Bill Cosby and R. Kelly have likened themselves to lynching victims—in Cosby’s case his wife Camille and his lawyer both said it on his behalf, in Kelly’s it came in a statement. So, what are they trying to do by aligning themselves with the likes of Emmett Till?
1) They’re making a play for black sympathy, in what they see as the ultimate SOS signal.
A white mob has me up against the wall, it says. Help me! When you say you’re being lynched you’re placing yourself at the center of those horrific scenes we see recorded in photographs where a black body hangs from the neck—the body may be burned and/or castrated—while a white crowd stands around as if at a picnic. What black person would not want to rescue another black person from being lynched?
Lynching was intended and received as domestic terrorism—American violence with a political message, which was the re-cementing of white dominance. It was violence enacted on an individual that was meant to send a message to the whole group. If there’s a lynching happening anywhere, it’s happening to every black American, so I can’t knowingly let a lynching happen—I have to try to stop it.
So, to say you’re being lynched is to send out a distress signal intended to tap into deeply painful images in the black collective memory: “Brothers and sisters, save me I’m being attacked by the most horrifying weapon the white man has.” But this is not what Cosby and Kelly are dealing with.
2) They’re suggesting that they are victims of mob justice.
In a lynching, typically, a mob mentality has led to a large group of people enacting extrajudicial violence against one powerless person. A lynching isn’t done by a single person—it’s mob violence. Kelly and Cosby surely must feel like there’s a large group of people arrayed against them. They probably feel powerless and afraid as the overwhelming mass closes in on them. To cast the moment as a lynching posits that the large group of people who are against them are in the wrong precisely because they are a large group because that means they are a mob, and you know you can’t trust a mob. This would be akin to advanced gaslighting, except Kelly and Cosby aren’t that good at it.
3. They’re blaming their problems on America’s fear of black sexuality.
Some lynchings were supposedly about protecting the sanctity of white women, but they were really about the fear of black male sexuality—that’s why in so many cases the victims were also castrated. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was supposed to have whistled at a white woman—that was the crime for which he was, in fact, murdered by a mob. Kelly and Cosby are going down for sexual crimes, so they’re saying it’s the hypersexuality of the virile black man that has motivated the mob to come after them. When wealthy predators are likening themselves to innocent, murdered teenagers, we are through the looking glass.
4. They’re saying they’re the victims of racism.
The victims of lynchings were murdered in unspeakable public hate crimes. For Kelly and Cosby to say their trials and public shamings are about racism is a cynical and horrifying use of the race card.
This is not about the white man being out to get them. This is not about white supremacy. This is about decades of sexual predation finally catching up to them.
5. They’re shaming their accusers.
If Cosby and Kelly are being lynched, then who are the lynchers? The women who are calling them out? This is an attempt to shame and silence these women.
6. They’re showing us that they’re desperate as hell.
Cosby and Kelly are thrashing about, fighting to keep from going under, willing to say or do anything to escape. Neither man cares if he demeans black history and the thousands who actually were lynched.
It’s shameful for them to say they’re being lynched, let alone in the week when we saw the opening of Bryan Stevenson’s new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to the thousands of Americans who were in fact lynched.
That building seeks to remember and commemorate the horrors that happened here, to show respect and reverence at last to all those who lost their lives to American terrorism.
Cosby and Kelly are longtime predators who are trying to make us see the world upside down in a shameless bid to save themselves from themselves. We will not be fooled.