Letisha Harlins made sure she took her lunch break early last Friday so she could sit in her black Honda and listen to the live radio broadcast of the R. Kelly verdict. Kelly was once Harlin's favorite musical celebrity. She plastered his album covers on her walls when she was in high school, and she saw him in concert nine times. But her support of the R&B crooner stopped six years ago when Kelly was arrested and charged with 14 counts of child pornography and child endangerment. The charges were the result of a videotape allegedly showing Kelly having sex with an underage girl. Harlins, now 24, was crushed. "I just couldn't believe it,'' says the native of Chicago, which is also Kelly's hometown. "I'd put him on this pedestal for years and then I saw the tape. I can't even look at him anymore. I couldn't stand it.''
Harlins was crushed again this month when Kelly was found not guilty of all the charges. But almost as disturbing to her was how African-Americans, and especially African-American women, reacted to Kelly's acquittal. When the verdict was announced, dozens of black women (and some black men) cheered outside the courtroom as the singer made his way past them to his waiting tour bus. It wasn't just in Chicago. African-American blogs such as Young, Black and Fabulous, What About Our Daughters and Essence quickly filled up with letters from women exclaiming their joy over Kelly's freedom. "That had to hurt the most," said Harlins. "Seeing black women who could have very well been that girl--or had a daughter that could have been that girl--cheer that he got off. How could a woman not support the punishment of someone who hurt another woman? I just can't understand it."
It's important to note that the alleged victim herself refused to testify and had insisted that she wasn't on the tape; Kelly, too, insisted it wasn't him on the tape. Those factors undoubtedly contributed to Kelly's acquittal. Still, the reaction to the case raises a host of familiar, difficult issues, starting with the role celebrity can play in a criminal trial. Fame has long affected--or perverted--the way justice is meted out by a jury. The celebrity effect is arguably more pronounced when the defendant is black, in part because African-Americans feel protective when one of their own achieves mainstream success. "It's sick," says Aaron McGruder, creator of the comic strip "Boondocks," which featured a scathing episode focused on Kelly and his supporters. "The love we have for our celebrities in the black community no matter what they do is crazy, and there is no excuse for it. It's just blind and clueless." As the O. J. Simpson case demonstrated, some African-Americans believe that the criminal-justice system is so stacked against them, they almost don't care if a defendant is actually innocent or guilty. "I know it sounds crazy, but it's just nice so see a brother beat the system--the way I know white guys with money do all the time," said Lamont Gillyard, 25, a loan officer in Los Angeles. "It's not right, but there are so many black men in jail for stuff they didn't do, it's hard not feel like this is a way of balancing out the game that isn't fair anyway.''
What's different about the R. Kelly case is that the girl in the video was also black. Couldn't African-Americans empathize with her situation? As Harlins says, she could be their sister or their daughter. The way that the community has sided with Kelly is reminiscent of the rape case against Mike Tyson from the 1990s. Tyson was convicted and spent four years in jail, but many African-Americans still vilified his 18-year-old accuser, Desiree Washington. After she testified against him, Washington was harrassed to the point where she went into hiding and ultimately changed her name. "Black people were saying the same things they are saying with R. Kelly: that the girl knew what she was doing and basically deserved what she got," says Dion Phillips, 37, of Macon, Ga. "I can't believe I'm hearing the same thing now."
Why is that? In part because of the nature of the crime. Sex crimes may be viewed as less important in a community defined by race and the issues surrounding it. Sexism isn't discussed much in the black community, but it's hard not to think about it here. It remains to be seen what impact national figures such as Michelle Obama, who could become the first-ever African-American First Lady--will have on the self-esteem of African-American women, in a culture in which music videos and lyrics that constantly show women only as sex objects help diminish that self-esteem. "The type of education black women and black men have had about the importance of black women has been pretty much non-existent, and what they have seen hasn't been positive," says Ashley Dunn, a board member of Black Girls Rock, an organization dedicated to raising the self-esteem of black girls. "With that in mind, why would anyone get upset about a black girl being abused and urinated on? She was nothing anyway, and that is how both women and men feel in our community."
That may be beginning to change. The site What About Our Daughters posted a strongly worded petition this week urging black men to stand up for black women and to stop supporting anyone who exploits their daughters, sisters and wives (the site is run by women, but the petition was written by a man). "I would have to say," the site points out, "that during this entire R. Kelly ordeal, it was Black women and not Black men who acted the most disturbing in their defense of R. Kelly." Paul Helton, who's signed the petition, says it's long overdue. "I 've been sick to my stomach for a while with the way we treat our women," said Helton, 35, a high-school teacher in Inglewood, Calif. "So as soon as I saw the petition I had to sign it. We owe women more than just sitting around and saying nothing. We've been a part of taking away some of their self esteem. Now we have to be a part of giving it back."