Cosby's Image Problem

In 1992 a star-studded crowd at the Academy of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame gala awards induction ceremonies chuckled at the one-liners delivered by its principal inductee Bill Cosby. The laughter stopped when Cos turned serious and accused the mostly white film and TV writers of "massacring" the black image on screen. Cosby's skewered indictment of the TV and film studio executives seemed ironic. For a decade they had enshrined him as America's most treasured TV dad. They made Cosby, a black man, the quintessential symbol of all that was good and wholesome in family values conscious America.

More than a decade after Cosby knocked the execs for butchering the black image, the even more tragic irony is that he has done much to massacre his own image. At last count, 13 women in court documents have virtually branded Cosby a serial sexual victimizer. They claim that he drugged and/or sexually assaulted them. In interviews, an angry Cosby screamed foul, and claimed that the charges are nothing but a shakedown of a rich and famous celebrity. Though no criminal charges have been filed against him, Cosby will be tied up in endless civil litigation for years to come to untangle the he said, she said mess.

Cosby inadvertently made himself a sitting duck for the finger pointing, when in a well-meaning, but ill-tempered tirade last May, he lambasted poor black teens and their parents for being lousy parents, educational slackers, for butchering the English language, and for their alleged thuggish behavior. He made the same charges against them a couple of months later. The indictment was way too broad, too sweeping, and it inched dangerously close to reinforcing the same vile racial stereotypes that Cosby has spent most of his professional career fighting against. They were the type of stereotypes that he had accused the TV and film executives more than a decade earlier of fanning. Now Cosby was on the bad behavior hot seat. If America's number one dad can ride high up in the moral saddle and lecture other blacks on their alleged bad behavior, than he should be held to the same lofty standard. The hint of sexual misconduct left him wide open to the accusation that he was a hypocrite and a fraud.

There were warning signs that Cosby might eventually be ripe for a tumble. In 1997, he made a bombshell confession that in the 1970s he had an extramarital affair, and was accused of fathering an illegitimate daughter. There were allegations of shakedowns, under the table hush money payoffs, an extortion trial and conviction of the woman who claimed to be his illicit daughter, and an avalanche of embarrassing kiss and tell tabloid gossip stories on Cosby. He dodged the bullet on that one. In sex-scandal-driven America it's a virtual rite of passage for the celebrity, rich and famous to be embroiled in peep show scandals. The public delights in that kind of titillation. It was hard to ban in Boston a guy that had shelled out millions to minority student scholarship funds, black colleges and had worked tirelessly for civil rights causes over the years. Cosby also continued to rail against the clown, coon, and buck dance image that blacks propagated of themselves in TV sitcoms. He pushed and prodded the film and TV industry to do more to promote more positive black images on screen.

But the glue on Cosby's still largely intact good guy image loosened in January when Andrea Constand was the first in the door to accuse him of drugging and sexually assaulting her. Cosby initially vehemently denied the charge, but swiftly shifted into damage control mode and, as he delicately put it, had a "sexual encounter" with her, but said it was consensual. That still fit the jaded public belief that the rich and famous routinely have their little sexual trysts, and who makes a big deal out of that? Cosby defenders cited the fact that Constand waited years to come forth to make her charge as proof that it was a put up job by unnamed conspirators to character assassinate yet another high profile, outspoken black man and thereby sully all blacks as moral degenerates.

There's not a shred of evidence to back that up. Moreover, Cosby did not pillory President Bush, "the white man," or the "white establishment." That's the bare prerequisite for blacks to rally around a black under fire, shout racism and spin racial conspiracy theories. Cosby had attacked other blacks. The horde of conservative commentators stumbled over themselves to hail Cosby as the ultimate truth-giver and laud him for having the courage to air dirty racial laundry.

America's favorite dad got some things right and some things terribly wrong in his bash of black America. And he may be right that his parade of sexual accusers is out to gouge a star. But if he's wrong, he'll have more than an image problem.


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