Insincere #MeToo Apologies Aren’t Just a White Thing
Charles Barkley. Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Insincere #MeToo Apologies Aren’t Just a White Thing

Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly are just two of…

“I don’t hit women, but if I did, I would hit you.”

That’s what Charles Barkley told Axios reporter Alexi McCammond in November during a political event in Atlanta. His follow-up? Telling the journalist that she “couldn’t take a joke.” The next morning, he released an apology via Turner Sports calling his comment “inappropriate and unacceptable” while still maintaining that it had been “an attempted joke.”

Yet, it wasn’t the first offense for the NBA Hall of Famer. As the L.A. Times pointed out, Barkley went through a similar cycle nearly 30 years ago when he asked a sportswriter, “Did you see my wife jumping up and down at the end of the game? That’s because she knew I wasn’t going to beat her.” Then, too, he apologized; then, too, the apology came not from his mouth, but from his employer.

Taken together, Barkley’s remarks stand as bookends of ignominy, a stunning illustration of what American culture has allowed for far too long — the casual mistreatment of women followed by insincere, callous apologies. Even though the #MeToo movement has largely emboldened women to come forward about such violations, the alleged reckonings that have occurred over the past few years have lacked change at a deeper level: Time and time again, powerful men have balked at taking responsibility for their predatory behavior, let alone changing their behavior.

Perhaps the most visible evidence of this has been provided by two of the men whose misdeeds ignited much of the #MeToo movement: Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. Both used their power and influence to rape and otherwise intimidate women into silence; however, when it came time for them to answer for their crimes in court, both portrayed themselves as weak and enfeebled old men. In April 2017, before his sexual-assault trial began, Cosby claimed that he was legally blind, then showed up at the jury selection wearing dark glasses and using a cane and clutching the arm of his longtime publicist. (The pageantry didn’t prevent his ultimate conviction on three counts of aggravated indecent assault; he’s currently serving a three- to 10-year sentence.) Weinstein, who is currently on trial for rape in New York City, showed up to the courtroom earlier this week using the aid of a walker.

While many have critiqued the #MeToo movement for a racial double standard, these men’s predatory behaviors, and their reactions when reprisal rears its head, cut across color lines.

Just because these are extreme examples doesn’t make them outliers. Weinstein and Cosby’s patterns are the natural outcome of a system that for so long has granted immunity to the powerful. However, the similarity of their trajectories — their crimes, their attempts to elude punishment, and their refusal to acknowledge their own behavior — highlights an overlooked fact.

While many have critiqued the #MeToo movement for a racial double standard, these men’s predatory behaviors, and their reactions when reprisal rears its head, cut across color lines.

That’s not to say that the media doesn’t apply its own double standard; as many have pointed out, the press can often act more quickly to cover allegations against Black men as opposed to their White counterparts. However, when any number of wealthy Black men have gone just as long as powerful White men before facing real consequences for their actions, from Cosby to R. Kelly, it doesn’t quite add up. Power is power, and having enough to take advantage of those with less social capital trumps other variables.

Consider what happens nearly every time a man faces sexual assault or rape allegations: Invariably, the accused or his spokespeople argue that the accusers are simply after money — as though victims only accuse people of rape when there is a possible benefit in it for them. The ploy provides a convenient and easy narrative for those who come to the defense of these men, whether fans or simply misogynists who see accusers as manipulative femmes fatale. R. Kelly did it repeatedly, according to Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly; just this week, The Cut reported, Weinstein’s defense team began sending reporters a large PowerPoint presentation filled with opposition research about his accusers.

Last year, NFL star Antonio Brown resorted to that playbook as well when accused of sexual misconduct by an artist he had hired to paint a mural of him. According to a Sports Illustrated report, the All-Star wide receiver sent her threatening and accusatory text messages, claiming to her and others that she fabricated the incident for money. However, in the woman’s letter to the NFL, which was written by her attorney, she asserted that she sought no monetary damages from Brown, simply wanting him to be held accountable for his actions. That’s consistent with a 2017 study conducted by two Australian sociologists who found that victims of sexual assault tended to view “pain and suffering” money not as a reward, but as recognition — as an “assessment of ‘seriousness’ connected to the nature of the wrong as a violation.” (Though the authors acknowledge that the study is limited due to its small sample size, their extrapolation remains valid.)

At the time of the artist’s accusation, Brown was also facing a civil suit for rape from his former trainer, Britney Taylor. (She has since dropped that suit and said she intends to refile; Brown has countersued for defamation.) As a result of these incidents, the New England Patriots released Brown, and the NFL agreed to investigate Brown’s actions. As of mid-December, NFL investigators had not finished their work; “I’ll get an update when they have more information,” league commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters. Yet, Brown continues to maintain his innocence. The day before a meeting was scheduled with the NFL to determine if Brown would be reinstated by the league, Brown tweeted out a half-hearted apology to Patriots owner Robert Kraft for the “drama” and “bad press” — but not for his reported behavior with these two women. “Sometimes when people are coming at you with false information and allegations,” he wrote on one Instagram caption, “we handle ourselves in ways that we sometimes regret.”

Like Weinstein and Cosby, Brown sees no reason to take responsibility for his actions. Like Weinstein and Cosby, he will not do so unless forced by the legal system. And even should that happen, full reprisal is unlikely. Weinstein’s ongoing civil suit includes a $25 million settlement that doesn’t require the disgraced film executive to admit wrongdoing or pay any money out of his own pocket; the payout will be covered by an insurance company representing The Weinstein Company, which itself has gone bankrupt because of Weinstein’s behavior. As Lili Loofbourow wrote in Slate recently regarding Weinstein’s criminal trial, “The story … is simple. Weinstein was and remains focused on getting as much for himself, and as little as possible for the dozens of women he abused, while continuing to violate the law but remaining a free man. (So far, he’s pulling it off.)”

It is imperative that we imagine and seek to create a world where there are actual consequences for rich and powerful men who victimize vulnerable people. That will require us to have hard, difficult, and often uncomfortable conversations with people we love — particularly with men who are comfortably invested in the current culture that allows such things to happen. Without that, we will simply continue the parade of non-apologies, intimidation, “it was just a joke” defenses, and outright denials. Without that, victims of sexual violence will be met not with support but with suspicion. Without that, accountability will remain an empty buzzword. Without that, there’s little hope that anything will change.