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Why America Took So Long to Wake Up to the Truth About Bill Cosby

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This spring, I taught a graduate seminar on magazine feature writing. One of the assignments was Robert Huber’s 2006 Philadelphia Magazine story, “Dr. Huxtable & Mr. Hyde,” a thorough run-down of several rape allegations against Bill Cosby, interwoven with the various charges Cosby himself was leveling at black communities across the nation. 

Almost none of my students, a racially diverse group of women and men in their twenties and thirties, had ever heard about the sexual assault charges and only a few knew that Cosby had spent recent years trading in respectability politics, telling poor black audiences that their behaviors and culture—as opposed to systemic racism or structurally enforced inequality of opportunity—were to blame for the challenges they face. My students didn’t know any of this, despite the fact that both these stories had repeatedly been told in depth, and not just in the story I’d assigned them.

Over the course of the past decade, charges that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted more than a dozen women have been reported in plenty of splashy venues: in Newsweek and Gawkeron-camera on “The Today Show” in 2005; in People magazine in 2006. During the same years, esteemed journalists including Kevin Merida and Ta-Nehisi Coates have dissected the racial messages that Cosby has been delivering around the country. Scholar Michael Eric Dyson even wrote a book about it.

Yet much of this stuff has remained unacknowledged in the context of Cosby celebration. He’s received an NAACP Image Award and the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Award; a year ago, Jon Stewart concluded an interview with Cosby by noting “This man is the best,” and this year, upon presenting him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, Chris Rock called him “the greatest comedian to ever live.”

How, my students wondered, was it possible for such incendiary material to be both public and simultaneously hidden from view, as Tom Scocca put it earlier this year, “something walled off from our collective understanding of Bill Cosby”?

There are lots of answers to this question: that, as Scocca posited, “nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator”; that, as Brittney Cooper recently suggested in Salon, “We are not a society given to slaying our patriarchs”; that as Newsweek reporter Katie Baker told Amanda Hess in February, Cosby’s accusers were “imperfect victims, as victims so often are.” There’s also the fact that Chris Rock’s superlatives aren’t so far off the mark: Bill Cosby is one of the greatest comedians, a man who 30 years ago, as Kelefa Sanneh recently wrote in The New Yorker, created “a great sitcom, perhaps a perfect sitcom.” 

But along with these explanations—and tied up with many of them—is another that merits consideration. One reason that we have collectively plugged our ears against a decade of dismal revelations about Bill Cosby is that he made lots of Americans feel good about two things we rarely have reason to feel good about: race and gender. To confront the ugliness of Cosby’s alleged criminal misdeeds, especially in light of his rhetoric around racial responsibility, would mean reckoning with what was always fraught, false, or incomplete about his messages. It’s a process that is likely to make a lot of people feel very bad—not just about Cosby, but about ourselves and our nation’s persistent inequalities. 

One of the reasons that Bill Cosby has been a beloved American comedian for six decades is that he offered one of the most soothing versions of the story of race in America. He was a history-making entertainer whose successes emblematized racial progress within the entertainment industry. He was the first African American man to land a leading role on primetime television drama in “I Spy.” Cosby had a doctorate in education, and brought the stories of black city kids to television with “Fat Albert”; he was a staple on public television with the “Picture Pages” segments on PBS that are my earliest television memory.

His most indelible creation was “The Cosby Show,” the blockbuster Thursday night sitcom that in 1984 provided the nation with an aspirational vision of a loving, successful, upper-middle-class black family. Scores of African Americans have written both appreciatively and critically about what “The Cosby Show” meant to them over the years. As a white girl from a predominantly white suburb who was rarely allowed to watch primetime television, I can still recall my surprise when, 30 years ago, my parents informed me that we were all going to sit down and watch the premiere of “The Cosby Show” together. 

White people loved “The Cosby Show,” especially liberal white people. They loved it because it was a great, funny, well-written, and beautifully performed television show. But also because it offered a warm vision of a world in which shared experience might help Americans of all colors to see past racial divisions and instead focus on the places where they connected.

“Cosby” offered white audiences an education in some elements of black culture: Here was a family that hung work by black artists on its walls, that listened to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, that proudly attended historically black colleges and reminisced together about the March on Washington. Some of it was familiar to me from my own family, which made me—a white kid who saw plenty of people on television who looked like me—feel connected to this television family that did not look like me. It felt good. 

This was always part of Cosby’s plan. In the 1960s, he said of his comedy act, “A white person listens … and he laughs and he thinks, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I see it too.’ Okay. He’s white. I’m Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alikeRight?” So I figure I’m doing as much for good race relations as the next guy.”

“The Cosby Show” was a show about black people that was fundamentally and unequivocally friendly to whiteness and to white people. The Huxtables had white friends. (Wallace Shawn played Cliff’s friend and neighbor.) Cliff, a doctor, had white patients. Clair, a lawyer, had white clients and white colleagues; the kids had white friends.

But in addition to what it had, there was what “The Cosby Show” lacked: Any suggestion that white people were culpable in the history of racism that the show addressed mostly through reference to mid-twentieth-century activism. White audiences were never made to feel bad about themselves or confront any hard questions about how they had benefitted from American systems from which black Americans had not benefitted. White fans never were forced to wrestle with the question of what made this brownstone-dwelling African American family so exceptional. Rather, we were consciously invited to consider them a new normal. It was its own purposeful message, and not inherently a bad one. But it did permit white Americans to buy into one of their fondest (and falsest) wishes: to consider the sins of the past as past and believe that true racial parity was not only possible but perhaps upon us.

In 1992, researchers Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis wrote a book, Enlightened Racism. After researching audience reaction, they argued that “The Cosby Show,” while ushering in “an era in which white audiences can accept TV programs with more than just an occasional ‘token’ black character,” was also part of a television culture “directly culpable for providing an endless slew of apocryphal stories that sustain a cultural refusal to deal with class inequalities and the racial character of those inequalities.”

These themes of Cosby’s work would become more explicit a decade after “The Cosby Show” went off the air, when the comedian embarked on a speaking tour in which he told black audiences that the kinds of hardships they faced were of their own making, that high rates of poverty, drug use and incarceration had nothing to do with policy or policing practices, but rather with failures of black culture and black parents. “Systemic racism, they call it,” Cosby said derisively, “it’s not what [the white man]’s doing to you; it’s what you’re not doing.” 

Here was the white blamelessness that made his television such a balm to white audiences, writ all too real. It was an approach that earned him sharp criticism from some black critics like Dyson and Coates. But perhaps because this framing of race in America still served as a palliative to lots of Americans, it somehow never resulted in a mass reevaluation of Cosby’s work by white critics or by many African American leaders, some of whom, to Dyson’s dismay, stood uncritically onstage with Cosby as he chided New Orleans residents who’d been dislocated and disenfranchised after Katrina about their behaviors and moral failings from before the storm.  

And then there was gender. “The Cosby Show” was, on its surface, extremely progressive on the issue of domestic and professional power balancing between the sexes. Clair Huxtable was a lawyer, ambitious and funny and brilliant and demanding of respect. She and Cliff had an equitable, loving, sexually charged relationship; they offered an idealized vision of a feminist hetero coupling. He was a nurturer to their children; his engagement as a father and as a domestic partner was the basis of the whole show. Even his work had a feminist dimension: He was an obstetrician. He took joy and pride in delivering babies, in treating the impending parenthood of his patients and their husbands as a project that would be a shared one. 

But when Cosby began to do his moralizing on race and responsibility, some of the cracks in the show’s gender politics were exposed. It became clear that he placed a lot of blame for racial inequality not just on black people, but on black women who were not like Clair Huxtable. Cosby’s infamous “pound cake” speech, delivered in 2004 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, was about what he saw as the role of parental inattention in landing so many black young men in jail. He was officially addressing both mothers and fathers, but his gendered judgments got clearer as he demanded, “Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you didn’t know that he had a pistol? And where is his father? And why don’t you know where he is?” In the same speech, Cosby lamented, “No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband,” and chided, “Five or six different children, same woman, eight, 10 different husbands or whatever. Pretty soon you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to.” This was a brutal language of misogyny, blaming women—women unattached to men—for the social disintegration of the family.

These were the same years that the charges that Cosby had assaulted women were beginning to emerge. Cosby denied the rape allegations, but in several cases conceded that he had had consensual relationships outside of his long marriage to wife Camille. This alone should have provoked a critical examination of his message: A man who was running around the country yelling at women for how they were conducting their sex lives, a man who held his own marriage up as a model of functional commitment, had in fact been repeatedly unfaithful.

To have gone further—to have really dealt with the possibility that this extremely rich man lambasting poor people for everything from stealing pound cake to wearing low-slung pants to how they named their children—might have drugged and raped more than a dozen women would have made our heads pop off. It would have made us question every single good, reassuring, optimistic thing that Bill Cosby ever made us think about ourselves and our country. It might have made us rethink the way he had held up wealthy people as model feminists, and about exactly how screwed up it was that that his progressive cheerful vision of post-racial America had never addressed the structural realities faced by non-wealthy people. 

What’s more, America’s terrible history of discrediting black men via charges of sexual misconduct was precisely the kind of thing that might lead white liberals to not want to engage such loaded allegations about a black man who had assuaged their guilt over precisely this kind of history. To wrestle with the merits of those charges—the kinds that have too often been deployed falsely to justify everything from lynching to stand your ground laws—would force America to acknowledge that deeply set, incredibly complicated patterns of injustice around race and sex and power are far from erased. It would also force us to concede that, in this case, they might not be false.

So we didn’t truly allow ourselves to think about any of it. Until now.

As Brittney Cooper recently wrote at the Crunk Feminist Collective, “It turns out that dudes, or their carefully crafted representatives, can sound right, and seem right, and still be all the way wrong. It turns out that you can have progressive feminist politics on the outside and still be deeply emotionally damaged and fucked up on the inside.” Now, Cooper suggests not only slaying the memory of Cliff Huxtable, but also Clair, by recognizing that “black, overachieving professionals, are allowed to be different kinds of men and women than Cliff and Clair, to have different kinds of families than they had, to be messy and not quite together, to be imperfect.” (Cooper also recalled some of the creepy instances in which Cliff patrolled his daughters’ sexuality by quizzing their boyfriends and husbands about it.)

Of course, patriarchal attitudes about sex and limitations around racial representation were not some special poison slipped into “The Cosby Show,” any more than the privileging of white experience is exclusive to “Girls.” These are messages baked into practically every iteration of popular culture (and politics) in the United States—from “Friends” to “The Sopranos,” from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. They’re baked in because we’re a fundamentally racist and sexist country with persistently racist and sexist attitudes. The chilling lesson, perhaps, is that the cheerier, popular vision put forth by Bill Cosby was illusory all along.

The story now unfolding around us is as grim a reminder as I can think of that as tempting as it may be to look away, or perhaps beyond, this country’s founding inequalities, foregoing the discomfort of painful reckoning does not and cannot make those inequalities disappear.