In my junior year of high school, our bus was notorious for sprawling brawls at the end of the day. Our driver, tired of breaking up melees, negotiated a détente. She said if everybody agreed not to fight, then she’d let us listen to Gucci Mane on the way home. We obliged. This was 2008. This was old Gucci. With the windows down, roof vent popped, muggy Georgia air flowing in, all the way home, along with the other boys, I’d sing along to Gucci’s “I’m a Dog”:
I'm a dog, I'm a dog, I'm a dog, I'm a dog, I'm a dog, I'm a dog, I'm a dog, I'm a dog
I'm a treat her like a dog
Feed her like a dog (Gucci)
Beat her like a dog
Then pass her to my dog
Retrospectively, it's hard not to shudder. Rap is often a violent, misogynistic genre—so much so that as a fan, I often find myself trying to disassociate with the lyrics. But no matter how I cut it, no matter how I intellectualize it, whether I’m bopping to Drake: “I hate calling the women ‘bitches,’ but the bitches love it”; Big Sean: “I'm not playing with you bitch, this not the WNBA”; Future: “I just called a gang of bitches out of immigration”; or Gucci, the gendered dynamics persist. In these songs, in this culture, black men float on top just as oil does in water.
Now, to be clear, hip-hop’s patriarchy doesn't flow from some specific political pathology among black men in particular, but rather from the broad political pathology common among American men in general. In our country, where President Donald Trump brags of sexual assault and legislatures packed with white men squash reproductive rights, black men’s bias towards women isn't exceptional. What is notable, though, is black men’s tendency to leverage American racism to demand that black women ignore gendered violence. Typically, this is an unspoken rule. In 2017, however, Dave Chappelle said the quiet part out loud. “A lot of black dudes haven’t been getting ‘me too-ed,’” he opined during his Netflix special. “I don’t want to jinx myself. You know why, though? Obviously, black women go through the same thing, right? The reason is because black women from slavery won’t tell on us. Because they know that no matter how bad we black dudes are, white dudes are very mean. They’re scared to see us get punished.”
The norm is clear: Black women's silence about black men’s sexual indiscretion is a communal expectation. Last week, after Gayle King’s interview with Lisa Leslie, we saw what happens when the gag order is broken. Discussing the late Kobe Bryant, Gayle asked Lisa if Kobe’s 2003 assault charge complicated his public image and if the case should be considered in his legacy. “Is it even a fair question to talk about it considering he's no longer with us and that it was resolved? Or is it really part of his history?” Gayle inquired.
“I think that the media should be more respectful at this time,” Leslie responded. “It's like if you had questions about it, you had many years to ask him that. I don't think it's something that we should keep hanging over his legacy. I mean, it went to trial.”
The line of questioning didn’t even last two minutes. It was an inquiry about a world-famous basketball player who settled a multi-million dollar civil case and made a public apology related to sexual assault. In our era of MeToo reckoning, where sex crimes have even roiled morning shows like NBC’s Today, it was a mild effort at accountability journalism. Yet, for several famous black men, it was an utter betrayal.
“Why are you all attacking us?” Snoop Dogg asked in a response video. “We're your people. You ain't come at Harvey Weinstein asking those dumb ass questions." The California rapper went on to call Gayle “a funky doghead bitch” yelling, “how dare you try and tarnish my homeboy's reputation, punk motherfucker. Respect the family and back off bitch, before we come get you."
In a related post, a fellow rapper Boosie Badazz also piled on. “Why the fuck would you do something like that, why would you do that to your people?” He bellowed. “Why would you ask a question like that trying to tarnish somebody’s image—you do that to your own black people! You sad, I’m finna fire your ass up!” After Snoop tagged a post with “Free Bill Cosby,” Cosby himself joined, posting on Instagram from prison. “It's so sad and disappointing that successful Black Women are being used to tarnish the image and legacy of successful Black Men,” Cosby, who’s been accused of assault by over 40 women, wrote, adding that his “heartfelt prayers are with Kobe and his family, as well as with Michael Jackson and his family.”
Messages of hate and condemnation continue to pour in culminating in death threats on Gayle’s life. And even yesterday, while Snoop apologized for his manner, he did not recant his message, writing that Gayle was “wrong.”
While I am saddened by these posts, I am not shocked.
For decades, black men confronted with sexual misconduct have passed down the rhetorical defense of racial protection like a family heirloom. When accused of harassment, Clarence Thomas, then interviewing for a place on the Supreme Court bendh, claimed he needed to be protected from “a high-tech lynching.” When charged with murder, O.J. Simpson insisted he needed to be protected from racist policing. When accused of rape, Bill Cosby declared he needed to be protected from “racial hatred.” Black men do this because it works, and it works because it’s deeply rooted in American history.
From the 14-year-old Emmett Till murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman to the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin killed for looking “suspicious” walking home, the United States lynched generations of black men—often justifying these killings with an imagined premise of sexual predation or criminality. Right now, in a Regal Cinema near you, you can buy a ticket to watch Just Mercy, the harrowing story of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, who fought to save Walter McMillian, a black man, falsely convicted to death row for violently murdering a woman. Yes, unjust racial persecution continues to plague black men as sure as hurricanes and fires continue to scourge the earth. Yet when Snoop and Boosie invoke the legacy racial injustice to muzzle a black woman, when swaths of like-minded black men join them in this effort, they aren't acting to protect black men’s innocence. They are fighting to safeguard black men’s birthright to trample on the lives of others. This is not the work of upholding civil rights but of advancing patriarchy.
It is telling that many of the men who rally against the “injustice” thrust on Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson are conspicuously silent about the plight of abused women and children. If the principal way someone engages in conversations on sexual assault is in solidarity with alleged suspects, then it’s clear who they think the real victims of sex crimes are.
Black men’s insistence on silence is part of a broader rape culture that succeeds precisely because so many people refuse to speak up. Discussing Kobe's life responsibly does not nullify his legacy, but instead, it humanizes it. Moreover, it is only a shallow love that the insists affection can only take the form of praise. As James Baldwin famously wrote of the United States, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” If we love Kobe Bryant, if we love black men, we will interrogate and contextualize all of him. And if we love ourselves and each other, we will stop demanding silence from victims, witnesses, and truth seekers who shed light on unspeakable pain.
Aaron Ross Coleman covers race and economics. His previous work appears in The New York Times, The Nation, Buzzfeed, CNBC, Vox, and elsewhere. He is an Ida B. Wells Fellow at Type Media Center.
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Originally Appeared on GQ