Arts & Culture

On culture: Bill Cosby has let us all down

Craig Lindsey.
Craig Lindsey. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Ten years ago, in this very paper, I wrote an extensive piece on the controversies that were surrounding Bill Cosby. At the time, he was under fire for scathing comments he made about the black lower class at an NAACP gala. He said that “the lower economic people are not holding up their end of the deal.” He also referred to black youth as “knuckleheads” who were “going around stealing Coca-Cola” and “getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake.” His comments drew criticism from the black intellectual set, with folks such as playwright August Wilson and scholar/author Michael Eric Dyson calling out Cosby for being too out-of-touch with contemporary African-American culture.

There was also this thing about rape allegations that eventually just faded away.

Cut to today. Bill Cosby’s reputation as an influential comedian, a beacon of the African-American community and basically America’s dad has been shot to pieces since the Associated Press revealed documents Monday that showed Cosby testified under oath that he acquired Quaaludes with the intention of drugging women and having sex with them. The testimony came from a sexual-assault lawsuit filed in 2005 by a former Temple University employee, a lawsuit that Cosby settled for undisclosed terms.

Keep in mind that this was just one of 13 allegations of sexual abuse brought against Cosby. How he subsequently got the public to forget about all of them is a feat that I’m sure even David Copperfield would find baffling. (It’s a fine example of how a celebrity who has enough money and power can pull a “Men in Black” and basically erase something terrible from public consciousness.)

But it certainly didn’t go away after it was brought up again last fall by African-American comedian Hannibal Buress. During a show in Philadelphia, Buress did a bit where he complained that Cosby has a lot of nerve criticizing anyone when he has all those rape allegations against him. The video ended up going viral.

What was once a baker’s dozen of allegations ballooned to more than three dozen. More and more women began coming forward day after day – some famous, some not-so-famous. Even Kathie Lee Gifford said she dodged a bullet when Ol’ Bill tried to kiss her once.

Accusations (as well as public disgust) may have piled up for Cosby, but he has never been criminally charged. Most of these allegations, which go back more than 40 years, are unfortunately barred by statutes of limitation.

Now, with the revelation of Cosby’s testimony, let’s talk about Bill Cosby as a hypocrite. As I mentioned earlier, Cosby is no stranger to wagging his finger at black Americans for not pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and taking responsibility for their actions. Oftentimes, his diatribes bordered on condescending.

But many people saw a well-meaning flicker in Cosby’s tough-love criticisms – even me. “Cosby may now be an old grump who wishes things could be the way they were when he was a kid,” I wrote in 2005, “but he’s still a black man who wants to see his people take control of their lives and their children.” While I thought some of Cosby’s sentiments could easily be mistaken for the ramblings of a grumpy old man, I still believed Cosby was a man of strong convictions, a flawed but altruistic gentleman looking out for his own.

Cosby hasn’t been charged or convicted, but it’s hard to ignore his 2005 testimony. Cosby has let all of us down, from the people who have found him to be both hilarious and a credit to his race to the people of color who admired and respected him. For years, Bill Cosby made black people ashamed for not living up to his black-and-proud standards. Now, we’re all ashamed of him.

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