First Bill Cosby made us laugh. Now he’s making us cringe.
And one of the most striking things about Cosby’s refusal to comment on a rising tide of rape allegations is that the reactions are breaking down along political lines. Conservatives, who admire the way that Cosby has spoken out against dysfunction and lousy parenting in black families, are skeptical. Liberals, who view themselves as champions of women’s rights, are abandoning him.
So as new questions swirl around America’s dad, the television icon, the guy who broke a racial barrier on prime-time TV, they are also being filtered through a political lens on the African-American superstar who dared take on his own community.
Cosby isn’t helping himself, in my view, by ignoring the allegations that he sexually assaulted a number of women. His silence, when asked about the accounts by NPR’s Scott Simon, spoke volumes. And his lawyer’s statement Sunday that they won’t “dignify” the allegations by commenting sounds like a dodge. With a new accuser surfacing over the weekend, it just seems like an untenable stance.
Everyone remembers Cosby as comic, or Cosby as Cliff Huxtable. But let’s flash back to 2004, when Cosby disrupted a celebration—a Constitutional Hall gala marking the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed—with some blunt talk about the black lower class:
“People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now you have these knuckleheads walking around.... The lower economic people are not holding up their end of the deal. These people are not parenting.”
There was more: “I am talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. 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?”
He also ridiculed ghetto talk and thuggery:
“They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is.’...
“These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
As Human Events later put it: “This attack went against the grain of politically correct rhetoric that defines white racism as the cause and black inequality as the result. Cosby was attacked both for his flippant tone and because his argument appeared to ‘blame the victim’ for the racial inequality and racial injustice suffered. Cosby was attacked as being a successful elitist, an African American who had achieved success and was now embarrassed by less-fortunate African Americans.”
That article quoted a Village Voice piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates calling Cosby “condescending”: “When the Coz came to Constitution Hall last week, he was one up on his audience. He had no solutions, and unlike his audience, he knew it.”
Many on the left, it’s fair to say, did not embrace Cosby’s indictment, as indeed it seemed to undercut the case against racism. Four years later, Coates wrote an Atlantic piece subtitled “The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism”:
“Cosby’s rhetoric played well in black barbershops, churches, and backyard barbecues, where a unique brand of conservatism still runs strong. Outsiders may have heard haranguing in Cosby’s language and tone. But much of black America heard instead the possibility of changing their communities without having to wait on the consciences and attention spans of policy makers who might not have their interests at heart. Shortly after Cosby took his Pound Cake message on the road, I wrote an article denouncing him as an elitist. When my father, a former Black Panther, read it, he upbraided me for attacking what he saw as a message of black empowerment. Cosby’s argument has resonated with the black mainstream for just that reason….
“But Cosby often pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of American citizens for their rights. He chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal-justice system, despite solid evidence that the criminal-justice system needs reform. His historical amnesia—his assertion that many of the problems that pervade black America are of a recent vintage—is simply wrong, as is his contention that today’s young African Americans are somehow weaker, that they’ve dropped the ball.”
Now we have Brittney Cooper in Salon, saying it’s time to dump Cosby:
“We are not a society given to slaying our patriarchs, even when they have proved over and over again that they are unworthy of our devotion. Despite increasing acceptance of gay families, the two-parent, heterosexual, nuclear narrative still anchors our notions of proper family. But what does it mean that while these men played progressive, loving family men on television, they potentially and allegedly raped and terrorized women and children in their personal lives?...
“Frankly, I think it is high time that these violent crimes begin to cost men something. And that might mean that it has to cost those of us who love them something as well…
“Bill Cosby broke a trust with America, and in particular, with black America, if he became just one more (black) man, who aspired to patriarchy on the broken, bruised bodies of women. Our knowledge of these alleged crimes demands we do something, and demands not simply a rhetorical denunciation of him while we continue to laugh absentmindedly at ‘Cosby Show’ reruns.”
Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, says it looks like the media are “trying to destroy Bill Cosby,” and he singled out CNN because the network twice interviewed one of the recent accusers, Barbara Bowman:
“What did Bill Cosby ever do to tick off some producer at CNN? Or some reporter? Or some assignment [editor]? What happened here? And then I had to stop and remember, Bill Cosby has numerous times in the recent past given public lectures in which he has said to one degree or another that black families and communities had better step up and get hold of themselves and not fall prey to the forces of destruction that rip them apart. And basically he started demanding that people start accepting responsibility. And the next thing you know he is the nation's biggest rapist, as far as CNN is concerned.”
In fairness, CNN anchor Don Lemon said the allegations were “unsubstantiated” and told Bowman, “People say, you’re out to get something, you either want fame, revenge, money, something, and they don’t believe you because it’s taken you all these years.” Bowman said she was trying to help others after joining a group called Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment. Another CNN anchor, Michaela Perreira, grabbed Bowman’s hand and thanked her for speaking out.
It was in 2005 that a woman named Andrea Constand said Cosby had drugged and assaulted her the year before, according to a useful Washington Post timeline. The local prosecutor didn’t not find enough evidence to bring charges, but Cosby later settled a civil suit filed by Constand, with the terms undisclosed.
Cosby told the National Enquirer in 2005: "Looking back on it, I realize that words and actions can be misinterpreted by another person, and unless you're a supreme being, you can't predict what another individual will do. I'm not saying that what I did was wrong, but I apologize to my loving wife, who has stood by my side for all these years, for any pain I have caused her. These allegations have caused my family great emotional stress."
Now publicist Joan Tarshis alleges that Cosby twice raped her in 1969, when she was 19. She wrote Sunday on Hollywood Elsewhere that Cosby slipped something into her drink:
“The next thing I remember was coming to on his couch while being undressed. Through the haze I thought I was being clever when I told him I had an infection and he would catch it and his wife would know he had sex with someone. But he just found another orifice to use. I was sickened by what was happening to me and shocked that this man I had idolized was now raping me. Of course I told no one…
“During those years as I grew into adulthood, I watched Cosby be praised by everyone from Presidents to Oprah to the Jello Corporation. It all made me ill, knowing first-hand there was something unbalanced about him. I had heard and/or strongly suspected I was not the only white girl he had drugged and raped but I never had any proof. No one began talking until 2004. And though I knew I should say something, I still felt ashamed. Ashamed that I didn’t earlier.”
Again I have to caution that these are unproven allegations. But an awful lot of women have come forward with similar stories.
Given that Cosby is 77 and some of the allegations are ancient, the country would probably be divided in any event. But his status as a polarizing figure in the debate over race and poverty is deepening those divisions.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.