Cosby, Respectability, and the Black American Dream

Bill Cosby  On Monday, a 2005 deposition was made public in which Bill Cosby admits to using Quaaludes to drug a woman he intended to assault. This latest bit of news comes after months and months of women coming forward to say they’d been sexually assaulted by him. With the number of accusations being around 40 and this new admission from Cosby himself, you would think that would be the end of it for him, right? What possible defenses could still be made at this point? But that thinking underestimates the resiliency of Bill Cosby’s image.

For a long time Bill Cosby has been treated like black people’s loving but stern father, an impression that hasn’t matched the reality of Bill Cosby as a public figure for over a decade. In 2004, Cosby gave a speech at the NAACP Awards in which he chastised poor and working class black people, declaring that after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, black people could no longer blame poverty, wage gaps, and poor schooling on racial discrimination, but instead had to take personal responsibility for their position. His infamous 2004 “pound cake” comment, in which he audaciously asks why we spend more time outraged about police violence than the criminal activities of black youth take on an even greater significance today when our awareness of police brutality and overzealous prosecution of black suspects for non-violent crimes is at an all-time high.

In 2008 he did a series of “fireside chats” across the country where he doubled down on his previous comments, declaring that Black America’s woes were the result of single mothers, sagging pants and the promiscuity of young black women. If Glenn Beck said these things, we’d rightfully dismiss them, but from Cosby we took them as “tough love.” Bill Cosby has been doing nothing but talk about how irresponsible, lazy, and oversexed black people are for years. Yet, still so many black people defend him and remain unconvinced of his guilt, even when we have actual video evidence of him admitting to drugging women for the purposes of rape. Why?

Beyond the obvious answers of our society’s long-ingrained rape culture and culture of misogyny is another reason: what Bill Cosby offers and has always offered, in each of his poor-bashing, slut-shaming speeches is the promise that attaining the status of respectable middle-class black existence will save us from the violence that we are subjected to daily. Reducing the black struggle against centuries of systemic racial violence to the simple matter of needing to pull up ones pants and close ones legs is reminiscent of the kind of victim-blaming many of his victims are probably facing now. His insistence that we could prosper with the proper conservative attitude and hard-work is why black people loved him and his shifting of responsibility for discrimination back onto the black working class is why so many black middle class people loved to quote him. It’s why young black men and women who Cosby would despise are still defending him. Bill Cosby is too invaluable to the Black American Dream to be taken down without mountains of irrefutable evidence of his guilt and even then, people may still find a way to love him. That’s what has kept R. Kelly career alive, after all.

The Cosby Show’s Cliff Huxtable and his family showed the world that we too could be like the white American middle class. But one need only ask working class and poor whites how well they’re treated by their white middle class to see just how problematic an aspiration this is.

To thrive in that arena of class requires an abandoning of those most in need. It’s the basis of capitalism. We can’t all rise to the top, just like we weren’t all kings and queens. This isn’t due to a lack of talent or work ethic, but because the system we live in thrives on exclusion and exploitation. Some of us will get left behind to be scapegoated and preyed upon by venerated male figures of black prosperity.

Bill Cosby sat upon a foundation of trust and goodwill built from years of portraying aspirational middle-class black life and he used that trust to rape and abuse women for decades. He used the veneer of respectability and morality to get away with assault, publicly chastising young women for expressing their sexual agency while he preyed on them behind the scenes. We don’t owe him anything, so let’s stop enabling his abuse.

Greerlin Thomas is a veteran Men of Strength Club member who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a B.A. in English Literature. He now works as a youth program coordinator and workshop facilitator for Men Can Stop Rape.

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