Cosby revelations bring new attention to racial accountability

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • December 4, 2014

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Like nearly everyone else I know, I grew up on The Cosby Show. The Huxtable family didn’t mirror my own, but it didn’t have to. As a child, I stared into the television screen, absorbing every piece of advice and convention in a home with parents who weren’t divorced. I grew up wanting to be Clair Huxtable: strong, feisty, and fiercely independent. I watched it so often that I distinctly remember how Auntie once used the sitcom’s running time to explain a long wait to me. “Dinner will be ready in 30 minutes,” I remember her saying once. “That’s the same amount of time as sitting down to watch one full episode of The Cosby Show.

And then, last month, a different narrative arose surrounding Bill Cosby, the show’s star and creator, now 77. I’d seen a glimpse of it before, going to a live show once with one of my parents, shocked to hear different, risqué jokes charged with a sexuality absent in the sweater-clad dad I’d spent my childhood looking up to. Upon the now-widely reported accounts of sexual assault (many of which date back decades), every new revelation proves to be another in a series of shameful somersaults of avoidance and blame, marking a complete nose-dive into ill-repute, a fall from grace for “America’s dad”. As more chinks in the façade of Cosby’s public personality come to light, one of his most notable ideological causes has also resurfaced, a dependence on “respectability politics,” a fallacy that relies on a false equivalence that has only become more harmful in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

In October, comedian Hannibal Buress mentioned the history of rape allegations against Cosby in a stand-up routine that went viral. “Bill Cosby has the… smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” Buress said. “Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom. Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, [that] brings you down a couple notches.” Despite the expansiveness of his audience and the freshness of his humor, for decades, Cosby’s influence allowed him to be a mouthpiece for the ill-conceived reasoning that perpetuates a narrative that blames disenfranchised and disempowered groups for their status, instead of the systematic biases that empower these disadvantages.

Cosby hasn’t been the only voice saying this, but he’s certainly one of the loudest, a position that came to a head in 2004 when Cosby spoke at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples’ award ceremony honoring the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, addressing the predominantly African-American crowd. “The lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding their end of this deal.”

This same ignorance fueled a so–called message of “tough love” delivered by CNN broadcaster Don Lemon, who received an honorary degree from Emerson this spring. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal of charges against him for the shooting death of another unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was a particular gem of total, and perhaps willful, ignorance. “Respect where you live,” Lemon advised in a CNN broadcast. “Start small by not dropping trash, littering in your own communities. I’ve lived in several predominantly white neighborhoods in my life. I rarely, if ever, witnessed people littering.”

Even this week, in light of a Ferguson grand jury’s decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of a black, unarmed 18-year-old named Michael Brown, former NBA player and current TNT basketball pundit Charles Barkley called the Missouri residents looting local businesses “jackasses”, describing them as “not real black people,” but scumbags in an interview with a Philadelphia radio station.

This happens a lot. The politics of “respectability” routinely rise as a leading narrative in the wake of highly emotional or upsetting events that prove the opposite of that ideology’s supposed evidence. It’s as if Martin, Brown, or any number of people of color victimized by systemic bigotry rife within the criminal justice system are merely a victim of their self-induced poverty or disadvantage. Whether it be the fact that Zimmerman was exonerated by a jury comprised of all white women, or that the actions described in the Ferguson case’s grand jury testimony brought clear protocol violations to light, the only groups respectability politics holds accountable is the oppressed.

The arguments in favor of “respectability” are dependent on the same particularly ignorant strain of self-reliance. “The preacher of respectability looks at sagging pants, out-of-wedlock births, and dropout rates in a vacuum, ‘solving’ issues like school-to-prison pipelines, persistent rates of poverty, and a dozen other problems by assuming black guilt and non-black innocence,” wrote columnist Jesse Taylor for Buzzfeed. For every minority it falsely argues in favor of, this idea of respectability—whether voiced by Bill Cosby or Bill O’Reilly—conflates overly simplistic solutions with generational, systematic social ailments often deeply woven into the fabric of the lives and experiences of minority communities.

“I’m just going to call it. Bill Cosby is done,” declared GQ contributor Lindy West in a November blog post for the men’s magazine. “There will be no comeback, there will be no damage control, there will be no prevailing core of true believers tipping public opinion back in his favor. It’s over.” And it’s just as well that his career is over, and the public platform that has enabled him to be the loudest, friendliest mouthpiece for the poisonous narrative of being twice as good or rich or proper to earn only a fraction of the respect.