Black public opinion on Bill Cosby’s release from prison on Wednesday can be summed up in two tweets.
He looks to us to provide the support and cover that he, as a former convicted sexual abuser, should not receive.
The first came from Phylicia Rashad, Cosby’s on-air spouse during the years he was declared “America’s Dad.” “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted” Rashad wrote before later deleting her tweet. The newly appointed dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts got an earful from many Twitter followers.
That included Janet Hubert, who played the original Aunt Viv on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” whose response rounded out the other side of Black feelings on the matter: “Phylicia what are you thinking!!!”
Unfortunately, Rashad’s thinking appears to mirror a swath of the African American community who think justice was done on Wednesday. Cosby’s sentence being overturned is a tragedy for the women he allegedly sexually abused — but it is also in a sense tragic for the people who continue to support him blindly. Like her, their reputations suffer in their continued support of an alleged predator without remorse, clinging to the version of Black success Cosby marketed.
In their mind, Cosby is a symbol of respectability politics in the African American community. For those who continue to support him because he once told listeners to pull their pants up, let me clue you in: He really doesn’t like us. We are a means to an end. We exist in his imaginary morality play of his life, there to joke about, abuse and deride. He looks to us to provide the support and cover that he, as a former convicted sexual abuser, should not receive.
This may sound harsh, considering Cosby was a major philanthropist to African American schools and causes. But I submit his continual gaslighting proclaiming his innocence and his infamous “Pound Cake” speech suggest otherwise. Cosby’s scam was drugging the African American community into thinking he was a paragon of respectability and moral behavior, all while allegedly drugging and sexually abusing women. Vilifying young Black men in the community seems to have been just one more cruel thrill for him.
Respectability requires acquiescence to societal norms, many of which are carved out of racism and abuse.
Cosby promoted those moral norms as a part of his persona, developed and honed during his time on “The Cosby Show.” Regarded as a moral force, his philanthropy and moral screeds were just an extension of the character of Cliff Huxtable. But as we all know, art does not necessarily imitate life.
Until Hannibal Buress called out Cosby in his comedy act, people whispered or spoke about his alleged abuse either by blaming it on women who went to his home or that they “knew what was going to happen to them.” It was an open secret. Cosby himself said drugs and fame helped him seduce women.
For the Black community, I hope it creates a discussion about how the norms of respectability can damage people. Respectability requires acquiescence to societal norms, many of which are carved out of racism and abuse. Cosby’s role as actor, comedian and philanthropist blinded many in our community to the fact that he was also allegedly abusing women. Because he became the paragon of a successful Black man, supporting his family both on and off screen, many looked to him as proof that Black people in America were worthy of respect and adoration.
But fame alone didn’t make the community embrace Cosby despite his failings as a moral actor and human being. Racism plays a part in this as well. The history of white women’s roles in falsely accusing Black men of rape also plays a role in this tale. For many African Americans, the white women who accused Cosby were lying; they remember the history of Black men being lynched because of false accusations. When the New York magazine cover featuring 35 women who accused Cosby of rape or sexual assault came out, it was a revelation to many that Black women were included among them.
Which brings me to my last, and important point: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturning Cosby’s conviction is a blow to all sexual abuse survivors but especially for Black women. Black women are more likely to underreport, despite the fact that 18 percent of Black women will undergo a sexual assault in their lifetime. High-profile recent cases such as R. Kelly’s arrest after the release of a six-part series on Lifetime about his decadeslong alleged abuse of women or allegations against Russell Simmons in the movie “On the Record” detail how Black women are sexually abused as well by rich and famous Black men.
Yet there are some in our community who are still willing to let Black girls and women shoulder the blame for the transgressions of men. Disgusting.
So while Phylicia Rashad and scores of other Black people are happy that Cosby is out, I am not. There is no middle ground for rapists of any color, creed or sex. They are predators, they are anathema, they are unfit for praise. While the legal system may have freed Cosby, he is forever branded in my mind and the minds of millions of others. He is unfit for praise. He is unfit for polite or impolite company. And no one — no one — should ever consider him America’s Dad again.