R. Kelly believed he could lie about his sexual predation and bury the allegations against him with an endless supply of cash, distractions and legal maneuvering. For more than two decades, he was absolutely right. But this week, his victims finally found justice.
In the 1990s, his marriage to a teenager was only a minor scandal, and in 2002, a video of him having sex with and urinating on a 14-year-old girl was widely consumed purely as entertainment and fodder for comedy routines. It has been more than a decade since he was acquitted on charges of child pornography in connection with that video — not because there was real doubt that he had abused a young girl, but because the jury chose not to believe the 14 witnesses, including her aunt, who came forward to identify her.
This week, a jury in the Eastern District of New York convicted Mr. Kelly of eight counts of sex trafficking and one of racketeering. He is still awaiting trial on charges related to child pornography, obstruction of justice and prostitution in Illinois and Minnesota. Certainly, this conviction is something of a milestone, but the sobering fact remains that it took a mountain of evidence accumulated from dozens of courageous women testifying to decades of abuse to make it remotely possible. And even this would not have happened without the tireless work of the #MuteRKelly movement spearheaded by Kenyette Tisha Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, the January 2019 release of Dream Hampton’s documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” and popular culture’s broader reckoning with the pattern of sexual violence perpetrated by powerful men.
In a just world, Mr. Kelly’s conviction would herald a transformative moment in the treatment of Black women and girls in our society. This story would be about more than a once-untouchable entertainer’s fall from grace. But if the interplay of racism and misogyny that facilitates the abuse of Black women and girls continues to be taken for granted as background noise, the opportunity to correct the wider historical wrongs that this shameful saga represents will pass. Until we confront the full weight of Black women’s intersectional vulnerability, these crimes of commission and omission will remain indefensibly common.
The long and arduous fight to hold Mr. Kelly accountable for the crimes he committed against Black women and girls points to a broader cultural and legal consensus that enabled his predations. Mr. Kelly compiled a long roster of victims, not merely thanks to his celebrity and wealth, but also because he knew he could prey with impunity on a group of women who were exceptionally vulnerable. Mr. Kelly’s victims were hiding in plain sight throughout his long and destructive tour of abuse for the simple reason that people in the overlapping worlds of entertainment, law and media have been trained to see Black girls and women as dispensable.
State efforts to bring Mr. Kelly to justice were either ineffective or nonexistent until in Illinois, the Cook County state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, encouraged his victims to come forward and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn decided to frame his crimes as a racketeering enterprise under the RICO Act. But Mr. Kelly was the linchpin in a vast cultural conspiracy that went beyond his criminal racketeering: Millions of fans continued to underwrite his lifestyle, buying his music and attending his concerts; hundreds of people in Mr. Kelly’s “entourage” facilitated his pattern of abuse; artists and entertainment executives ignored it; and media covered for him. They saw these women and girls as little more than props, whose abuse helped build Mr. Kelly’s sultry brand.
This is not the first time — nor will it be the last — that racism and misogyny have converged to create a monstrous intersectional failure. Almost 30 years ago, Anita Hill courageously testified that the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, only to be vilified and denounced by senators, pundits and even a large part of the African-American community.
When Mr. Thomas dismissed her testimony as part of a “high-tech lynching,” he gave a generation of abusive Black men a convenient defense that they could use to justify their treatment of Black women and girls. In 2018, “lynching” found its way into the vocabulary of those defending Bill Cosby. And three years later, Mr. Kelly’s team invoked a similar defense to transform the victimizer into the victimized.
In many of these cases, people simply discounted the testimony of Black women and girls. As a white juror in Mr. Kelly’s first case, in 2008, put it in Ms. Hampton’s documentary: “I just didn’t believe them, the women. I know it sounds ridiculous. The way they dress, the way they act — I didn’t like them. I voted against. I disregarded all of what they said.”
Within some quarters of the Black community, there remains a twisted belief that it is unfair and disloyal to air grievances against Black men if they behave in ways that are purportedly “cultural.” In the immediate aftermath of the Thomas hearings, for example, it was suggested that Ms. Hill should have known, as a Black woman from the South, that her boss’s advances were mere flirtations, the product of his “down-home style of courting.”
Both of these instincts — the racist assumption that Black women don’t tell the truth and the sexist expectation that Black women must downplay incidents of abuse by Black men — have created a vacuum of care and accountability that all too often leaves Black women and girls to fend for ourselves.
The societal disregard for Black girls and women is an effect of a specific kind of racism and misogyny — an artifact from enslavement. Stereotypes of Black men as sexual beasts have historically been used as a justification for lynching, and they endure to this day. The stereotypes that emerged from the racist past about Black women also prevail, even within Black communities. Black girls are still adultified and blamed for the abuses they experience. It’s why Black women, who make up 40 percent of domestic sex-trafficking victims, are rarely featured in the documentaries, Hollywood films, media and social media narratives that hold up white girls as innocents to be saved. It is why the #SayHerName movement had to be created to include the names of Black women killed by the police.
When it comes to accountability and justice, these longstanding patterns of harm have been historically disregarded and legally erased. This is the deeper, longer and wider racket that Mr. Kelly knew and weaponized. It is why he was able to coerce, abuse, violate and traffic Black women and girls in plain sight for more than two decades.
Mr. Kelly’s belated conviction should be the beginning, not the end. It should prompt us to examine the deeper devaluation of Black women and girls that empowered him to prey on them at will. Without such a reckoning, the neglect and abuse that rendered his victims so vulnerable in the first place will only continue.
Kimberlé Crenshaw (@sandylocks) is a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and at Columbia Law School, where she is the founder and director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies. She is the author of “On Intersectionality.”
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