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Last month, Bill Cosby was released from prison after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his sexual assault conviction in 2018, citing an error of prosecution. The overwhelming response has been one of shock and dismay: Over the past decades, Cosby has been accused of drugging and assaulting dozens of women. Actress Phylicia Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show. In response to the news, Rashad tweeted: “FINALLY !!!! A terrible wrong is being righted – a miscarriage of justice is corrected! “
Her tweet sparked outrage, with many pointing out that her blatant disregard for survivors was particularly infuriating given that she had recently been appointed Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University. Yet for those with experience of historically black colleges and universities, and the way these institutions treat survivors of sexual assault, nothing about the incident came as a shock.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Marie Thomas, a 2019 Spelman College alumnus. “Rashad and Cosby represent an all too popular dynamic that I have witnessed at my HBCU. A relationship dynamic that means privileging black men over everyone, especially yourself.
HBCUs have a history of neglect of survivors, who have been fight for decades to be seen, heard and respected by institutions they call home. Delaney Vandergrift, the former president of the SGA at North Carolina A&T, recalls telling university officials in 2018 that sexual violence was a problem on campus and women did not feel safe. “I was rejected and honestly fired,” she says.
Because of the HBCUs unequal funding, Badly managed Title IX offices, and the administrations of the old guard which refuse to answer anti-black misogyny and homophobia on campus, survivors of all identities are still often rejected by schools that refuse to support them adequately. In 2017, six women for follow-up Howard University, claiming the school failed to respond promptly to their reports of sexual assault, allowing an abuser to rape on campus again. (The costume was installed Last spring.)
HBCU survivors also face the added toll of protecting their schools and attackers from retaliation in a world dominated by state anti-black violence. “We don’t want another black person to be deported, publicly criticized, incarcerated, etc. We don’t want our institutions to receive negative attention – we want to maintain this image of black excellence.” says Venkayla Haynes, a survivor, community organizer and survivor advocate in the HBCUs.
And when it comes to Bill Cosby, things get even more complicated. Cosby’s’ 90s sitcom A different world, who followed characters to a historically black fictional college, is widely recognized as a major driving force in the resurgence of HBCU attendance in the 90s and 2000s. Since the 90s, Cosby has joined various HBCU Cards and donate millions of dollars at HBCUs across the country. Cosby and Rashad are both major donors to dark causes, so organizations that speak out against bad behavior run the risk of losing much needed funding.
Following Rashad’s tweet, Howard University distanced himself in a statement, writing: “The personal positions of University leaders do not reflect the policies of Howard University. We will continue to fully defend survivors and support their right to be heard. Rashad herself also tried to reverse her initial tweet, writing: “I fully support survivors of sexual assault who come forward. My post was by no means meant to be oblivious to their truth. Personally, I know from my friends and family that such abuse has lifelong residual effects. My sincere wish is healing. She then apologized to the Howard University community.
However, Rashad did not go so far as to resign, as many have called on him to do. And like Dr Yaba Blay, professor and activist, wrote on Instagram: “If you think Howard University will fire Phylicia Rashad after publicly celebrating the release of a convicted rapist, you’ve never been to an HBCU or worked in a… trust me , her name means more to them than the safety of black women.
While Rashad’s celebration of Cosby may seem unique, the reality is that it is a reflection of the old guard of black elites who profit from keeping evil systems alive for the sake of legacy and reputation. “It’s a constant reminder of how this system works when it comes to the rich and powerful,” says Haynes. “Many abusers are doing very well. Survivors never come first – we are watched much more than those who have harmed us. This is why the survivors do not come forward. This is the culture of rape.