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Squires: Black America can no longer afford to be trapped in R. Kelly’s closet

Op-ed
Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

R&B singer R. Kelly's legal troubles are much like "Trapped in the Closet," the seven-year-long "hip hopera" that traces the sordid love lives of multiple characters.

Kelly was recently found guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking. The twists and turns of his criminal cases caused many people to stop watching before the story culminated with him facing 10 years to life in prison. A jury of seven men and five women found the "Pied Piper of R&B" guilty of heading a criminal enterprise that lured and ensnared girls, boys, and women for his sexual gratification.

There are many lessons to learn from this case. One is that sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors are much bigger problems than most Americans realize. The U.S. Department of Justice released a report in 2017 that analyzed over 37,000 cases of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). They found that 98% of defendants who were convicted of CSES charges were sentenced to federal prison with an average sentence length of 11.6 years. While over 80% of the defendants in those cases were white, R. Kelly's case is a symptom of a larger problem of misplaced allegiance and sympathy in the black community.

R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, and Bill Cosby are all men whose black supporters viewed them as victims of a racist legal system. That perspective allowed them to operate with impunity for a very long time. In Simpson's case, it caused black people across the income and education spectrum to say some version of, "I thought he was guilty, but I'm glad he got off."

That is not justice.

Unfortunately, the phenomenon of identifying with perpetrators of crime because of past injustices and ignoring the plight of their victims has developed into a cultural cancer in the black community. It is the subtext of our conversations on race, crime, and culture in America. R. Kelly was able to operate for so long because until recently, the sexual objectification and exploitation of black girls and women has been part and parcel of hip-hop for over 30 years.

When the people degrading, demeaning, and disrespecting women are rewarded culturally and financially, is it any wonder that the well-being of black girls is an afterthought? Snoop Dogg once showed up at an award show with two black women wearing dog collars and leashes. He also bragged about being a pimp and called Gayle King a "funky dog head bitch" last year after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. He has not suffered any serious social repercussions for any of his actions. To the contrary, Snoop has become a go-to corporate America pitchman, weed-smoking Martha Stewart sidekick, and a halftime performer for next year's Super Bowl.

This phenomenon goes far beyond celebrity worship. As I stated in a previous column, the quest for social justice has convinced black Americans we are primarily victims of a racist legal system, as opposed to primarily being victims of violent crime. As long as that reality remains fixed in place, we will continue to see extensive media coverage of a handful of deadly interactions with the police and next to nothing on the hundreds of children killed in our streets each year.

The fatal shooting of Ma'Khia Bryant provides a perfect microcosm of this social reality. Bryant, a 16-year-old black girl, was shot by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer on April 20, 2021. Her case went viral because there was video of the entire incident as well as the fact that it was the same day Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd. The video showed a police officer making a split-second decision to shoot Bryant as she was about to plunge a knife into the body of another woman in a pink jumpsuit. The death of a 16-year-old girl is tragic, but the reaction from people like Valerie Jarrett, LeBron James, and Joy Reid made the case about systemic racism and police misconduct. What none of these black leaders mentioned was the fact the officer likely saved the woman in pink from death or serious bodily harm. No one even bothered to find out her name.

The black community is the woman in pink — nameless, faceless people whose bodies our leaders are willing to step over in order to get to a more useful victim. Black people make up 13% of the US population and close to half of all homicide victims, yet somehow our leaders are only interested in national crime headlines that advance their social justice agenda. It's a lot harder to collect donations for Black Lives Matter when the perpetrators and victims look the same.

The specter of historical injustices casts such a long shadow for black people in America that self-interested narcissists like R. Kelly have convinced us to see them as innocent victims. Much like politicians, they know which cultural buttons to push to elicit a sympathetic response from a community that does not want to see another innocent black man go to jail and lose his livelihood.

R. Kelly is going to prison, but the culture he helped create — rife with sexually explicit content and images — is now being promoted by more "marginalized" artists. The young black men who were viewed as oppressed 30 years ago have seen their male privilege overtake their black victimhood. They're out and now a more intersectional crop of porn-pushers like Cardi B and Lil Nas X can use their sex and sexual preference identities to shield them from social sanction, much like their male predecessors.

This is what happens when the biblical view of human dignity is abandoned in the name of social justice. Our society sees women as commodities whose value comes either from the amount of pleasure they bring men or the amount of money they can make for themselves. This is how people who say they love and support women end up promoting stripping, prostitution, and abortion in the name of women's empowerment. The end result of them is exploitation, whether from artists, corporations, or politicians.

My hope is that the R. Kelly saga serves as a wake-up call for the entire country to address the dangers of self-interested adults, unprotected children, celebrity worship, racial protectionism, and distorted justice. It seems like we're ready.
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