When jurors in New York found R. Kelly guilty of federal racketeering and sex trafficking charges, the verdict not only laid bare Kelly’s own perversion, it also revealed much about our society.
For decades, the 54-year-old Kelly had faced allegations that he was a child molester. He was tried in 2008 on child pornography charges, but with his acquittal in that case, the sense that he was untouchable seemed to only be magnified. Kelly, after all, was a celebrity, and not even the existence of videos chronicling his sexual abuse of underage girls could convince America of his guilt. Instead of condemning his predatory actions, we praised Kelly’s singular talent as a songwriter and performer and excused the behavior that was right before our eyes. Some even blamed the victims for placing themselves in Kelly’s orbit.
The victims. That’s who this was always about — and our failure to recognize what was happening was tied up in their identities. The vast majority of Kelly’s accusers were young Black girls, and as such, their credibility was always in question. Their value was never affirmed. Their virtue was never protected, because in a society where racism and misogyny so often intersect, Black women and girls seldom receive sympathy — and that’s why it took so long for Kelly to be convicted of his crimes.
If Kelly’s victims were white women, there would have likely been a much different reaction to those earlier accusations. The authorities, the media, and society as a whole would have moved heaven and earth to take a measure of justice. That’s because the stories of white women who are victims of crime take priority over cases involving nearly every other demographic in America — a media fixation so pronounced that it has a name: Missing White Woman Syndrome. For proof look no further than the latest example — the case of Gabby Petito.
Petito was blond and attractive — a travel blogger who used YouTube and Instagram to document her trips, including her latest cross-country jaunt with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. When Petito disappeared, her story received exhaustive coverage. When her remains were found, the bright lights only intensified, and now, as the authorities search for Laundrie, who is a person of interest in Petito’s death, the story has become larger than life. However, when Black women and girls are in danger, their stories are too often cast aside.
In the case of R. Kelly, Jim DeRogatis, a white music critic, told the sordid tale in a book called Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly. And Black women in media took Kelly’s story a step further — the filmmaker Dream Hampton interviewed the women whose accusations eventually brought down the singer for the documentary Surviving R. Kelly. And shortly after Kelly was charged, Gayle King of CBS News conducted an explosive, prime-time interview in which Kelly denied any wrongdoing.
Still, some in the Black community refused to believe what they were seeing. Scarred by historical precedents of false rape allegations that led to the wrongful convictions of Black men, some viewed the accusations Kelly faced with suspicion.
Kelly was not a casualty of racism. His victims were the casualties. Now these Black women must go forward with the scars he left them, and the rest of us must go forward knowing we didn’t do enough to protect them.
In the wake of Kelly’s conviction, King and Hampton — the two Black women who persisted in telling the R. Kelly story — spoke to one another on CBS Mornings. Hampton discussed Kelly’s conviction with an abiding hope.
“I want to believe that this means Black women and girls will be heard,” she said, “but I don’t want it to be dependent on a piece of media going viral.”