Race. Celebrity. Sexual assault. Given the fact it touches upon all of those hot-button topics, it’s no surprise that the swirl of rape allegations against Bill Cosby has mesmerized so many Americans.
But as Cosby’s career collapses, it’s worth taking note of a 2001 study that focused on that same combustible combination, and produced some disturbing results.
For black defendants accused of rape, “being a celebrity was a liability,” the researchers write in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology. In contrast, they found fame "had distinct advantages for white defendants.”
When charged with sexual assault, “Black celebrities were perceived more negatively than were black non-celebrities,” according to Southwestern University psychologists Jennifer Knight, Traci Guiliano, and Monica Sanchez-Ross, “whereas white celebrities were viewed more positively than were white non-celebrities.”
"Although participants preferred to punish white celebrities and white non-celebrities about equally, they tended to prefer harsher punishments for black celebrities than for black non-celebrities."
The study featured 71 white college undergraduates, who read one of four fictional newspaper accounts of a reported rape. “In these accounts, the accused rapist was described as either a black celebrity, a white celebrity, a black non-celebrity, or a white non-celebrity,” the researchers write.
The celebrities mentioned in the fake news stories were white actors Mel Gibson, George Clooney, and Harrison Ford, and black actors Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Danny Glover. They were chosen because all six had similar scores on an earlier study of attractiveness, fame, and likeability.
The non-celebrities were described as successful actors who had not achieved fame. In his version of the news story, readers learned that the fictional black actor accused of rape, Jason Smith, “frequently appears on BET (Black Entertainment Television),” while they read the fictional white actor was often on the E! channel.
After reading the account, in which a flight attendant accuses the man of rape and he claims the sex was consensual, participants rated on a one-to-seven scale the credibility of the accuser and defendant, and their level of responsibility for the evening’s events.
They also gave their opinions regarding “the probability that the defendant would be found guilty, the extent to which the defendant should be punished if found guilty, and the probability that the victim received some enjoyment from the act.”
The researchers found a “conspicuous trend” in the results. “Although participants preferred to punish white celebrities and white non-celebrities about equally, they tended to prefer harsher punishments for black celebrities than for black non-celebrities,” they write.
In addition, “black celebrities were judged to be less credible than were black non-celebrities, whereas white celebrities were perceived to be marginally more credible than white non-celebrities,” they add.
The researchers argue these results may reflect “aversive racism,” which they call “a subtle form of prejudice (that) emerges when people feel free to express themselves, and especially when they feel they can justify their feelings.”
“It seems plausible that white jurors judging rape cases might rationalize their harsh treatment toward black celebrities as being due to the rape, and not because of the defendant’s race or social status,” the researchers write.
“Given this rationalization, harsh legal treatment of black celebrities can be justified (in one’s mind) as appropriate and fair, rather than racist.”
It’s important to note that the 2001 study, which featured a relatively small number of participants, does not prove this thesis. What's more, its single-case vignette is not identical to the Cosby allegations, which have been made by multiple women.
Nevertheless, the results are worth keeping in mind as you attempt to assess the comedian’s guilt or innocence. This research suggests that, whatever the facts may be, white people tend not to give accused black celebrities the benefit of the doubt.