Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Politics of: Bill Cosby

Thank You ... I Do Feel A Little Lost ...
The graphic above (collected in this excellent timeline) is from NBC's new Cosby-Show cancellation (the page would've pointed to the show information before being canceled). If you want to know why you shouldn't dismiss the 15 allegations against Bill Cosby, look here from someone who did (Ta-Nehisi Coates). If you haven't heard, Cosby is accused (and, uh, has been for years it turns out) of using drugs to rape at least 15 different women.

The Omnivore knew, vaguely, that Cosby had been going around the country speaking out against the moral corruption of the American-black lifestyle. You can read one of his speeches here. It's called the Pound Cake speech in most places, but "the Ghettoesburg Address" in others. There's a reason: it shook everyone up. Here was a black man--a widely loved, massively recognized, iconic black man--absolving white guys of, well, everything.

The issue of institutional racism is too big to get into here. But let The Omnivore assure you that there are a plethora of societal constructs beyond baggy pants that are holding black people back. Some of that is, yes, aggregate bad decisions. Some of it, though, isn't--and while Brown v. Board of Education (what Cosby cites) addressed a specific and visible problem, others have remained.

The End of Cosby
At this point it seems clear that Cosby's career is pretty much over. Worse, his legacy will be one of the sharper falls in celebrity history (Mel Gibson ... might track it in some ways--but no one thought of Gibson as the ultimate dad--nor was he in our living-rooms for almost a decade). The OJ verdict had its Truthers (a belief in his innocence was a show of partisan ship for the black community for quite a while)--but even a sports legend isn't generally beloved in the same way that Cosby was.

To an extent "we" (and by "we" The Omnivore will count the White Community as a big part--perhaps not larger than the Black Community--but maybe more importantly) wanted to believe that Cliff Huxtable was real--that yeah, Cosby was playing a character--but that he was actually, really, for reals, just like that (it turns out he was, in real life, kind of a dick even when he wasn't raping).

The Omnivore didn't much watch The Cosby show (not religiously like some people). He imagines he'd feel pretty gutted if, say, Patrick Stewart turned out to be a serial rapist. He might even give Stewart the benefit of the doubt in the face of pretty stark revelations (or, say, 15 of them).

At this point--with nothing but an awkward, silent, head-shaking denial on NPR and various questionable lawsuits decked against him--there seems no way Cosby will ever have social currency again.

The Politics of Bill Cosby
The politics of Bill Cosby are the politics of who gets to say what. White conservatives quickly figured out that their ability to deliver moral messages to black people (stop having babies out of wedlock, dads--stay with your families, and pull your damn pants up) were not just ineffectual but actually counter-productive. The few black conservatives who did deliver those messages were similarity dismissed (albeit not as harshly as whites).

Simply put, it appeared that, largely, there was nothing that conservationism had moral standing on to deliver as a message. This wasn't because they didn't want to--in fact, in the early 2000's, they dearly wanted to open a dialog with potential black voters and the GOP even felt it had a common ground: conservative social values. Black people were seen as largely church going and with a strong (at least philosophical) focus on families.* They were demographically anti-SSM (and anti-gay in general--it was Obama's about-face that really moved the needle on this). In the black community Planned Parenthood is sometimes seen as a front for racist eugenics (against, specifically, black people).

The reason that moralizing was so important was because the message to blacks beyond conservative social values was, well, damaged. The message Republicans have for blacks is all around economic opportunity. This comes, generally, in the form of tax-breaks and incentives to (generally) white people who will then, in theory, hire more struggling black people. To black people this looks insane: so long as there are white people looking for work, won't they get hired instead? Yes, say the statistics--yes they will (White ex-cons are as likely to be hired as blacks who have not gone to prison). It's not hard to see why this case isn't moving the needle--but if you've decided that the only thing holding black people back is themselves, it's the only policy offering that makes sense (monetary incentives to pull your pants up might sell belts--but they will not create a lack of visible underwear out of self-respect).

Enter Bill Cosby. Not only was Cosby's moralizing not the same (as Coates notes in the first link at the top) as main-line black conservative speakers (like Herman Cain or Allen West) but he was doing something they mostly couldn't: he was speaking directly to blacks and in some cases even doing it in relative private. Bill Cosby had a credibility on these issues with those audiences that was without peer and, possibly, second only to Martin Luther King's.

Even more importantly, his speaking on these issues made whites feel good. It helped against charges of racism ("Hey--don't blame me--Cosby said the same thing so you gonna call him racist?"). It shored up a raft of unspoken assumptions the audience could make (about the deservingness of welfare mothers, for example). In short, Cosby was the perfect rhetorical weapon.

He had maximal credibility and perfect articulation.

His fall from grace will signal not only the removal of a message-bearer but also, to an extent, the discrediting of that message: it was, after all, reliant on his moral stature. It is fine to explain to someone else why their behavior is objectively self-destructive--but to give the "Ghettoesburg Address" requires a higher moral vantage point.

This will likely not change things that much: Cosby was doing his thing in the early to mid 2000's. There was a time before Feb 10, 2007 when that might have made a political difference. After Obama threw his hat in the ring, though, that time had passed. The past six years--and the coming two--are likely to move the mass-black electorate as far away from conservative voting as it is possible to get. Cosby's message might once have caught fire--but he's no longer the most mainstream black apex predator. He's more loved than Obama--that's true. But Obama doesn't just play a president on TV.

* This approach, having failed with black people, is now being tried with Latin Americans. It will likely have the same degree of success as social values are nice-to-have--but if you believe you won't be hired due to your name/the color of your skin ... and stats support that ... making things easier for large corporations isn't going to help you much.

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