When “The Cosby Show” was on the air on CBS from 1984 to 1992, it was unanimously praised—except by a few grumps and crackpots, for there are always grumps and crackpots—for being an unequivocally positive influence on racial understanding and the culture. Finally African American characters were on television every week who were not inner city criminals, hucksters, drug dealers or pimps. Finally, after dozens of white “Father Knows Best” style sitcoms, there was a comedy about black professionals heading a family with kids that used good grammar, didn’t skip school and were never in trouble with the law. “The Cosby Show” won awards and plaudits from educators and civil rights groups. It provided a positive model for an attainable future for black children, and an image of black Americans that combated racism by making it seem as illogical as it is. These were good people, good parents, good citizens, with the same values, hopes and dreams as everyone else.
The insidious power of cognitive dissonance is that it allows strong feelings about anyone or anything to unfairly and irrationally carry over to anything or anyone else that the object of those feelings touches. Today, as the fact that the creative force leading “The Cosby Show” had a hypocritical and despicable secret life as a sexual predator becomes undeniable, this process is triggering dangerous and ugly shifts in attitudes and advocacy. A confluence of events has resulted in Bill Cosby being teamed with the Confederate flag (remarkably, it murdered nine African American church members in Charleston! ) to trigger a troubling wave of attempted cultural and historical purges—and where it stops, nobody knows. Some progressives want to wipe all memory of Bill Cosby’s achievements from the nation’s consciousness, just as they want to tear down every statue of a Confederate military hero and wipe the name of Robert E. Lee off hundreds of schools, streets and parks.
[Aside: Stations are now pulling The Cosby Show, once one of the most syndicated and ubiquitous of all sitcoms, from their schedules. This is just a reasonable business decision. The stations reasonably assume that the show will not be as entertaining or popular once it is impossible to watch Bill Cosby as Dr. Cliff without thinking about Dr. Cliff secretly drugging and raping his female patients. That’s not cognitive dissonance. That’s just reality. Actor Gig Young made some of the best romantic comedies of the Sixties with Doris Day and others. He was a skilled comic actor, but he murdered his wife and killed himself in a drunken rage, and it’s hard to laugh at Gig any more. Those movies are virtually never broadcast, and it is hard to find them on DVD. Among Bill’s victims are the member so of his cast, including the kids he professed to love like a father, who will lose millions in residuals because he couldn’t control his demons.]
A time machine is helpful in these matters, so Salon, the left-wing blog that is so predictable it sometimes catches me by surprise, since it is hard to believe that any publication will willfully rush into self parody, has suddenly decided that “The Cosby Show” was “based on a distorted and inaccurate presentation of the black community, one that has enabled a pernicious type of right-wing “colorblind” racism to flourish.”
Ah. Cosby is bad, so everything he did before we found out that he was bad was bad too. We weren’t just duped about him. We were duped about the values he stood for!
The author of the article is Chauncey De Vega, an African American journalist who doesn’t even try to hide one of his motives: he’s still steamed that Cosby dared to urge African American families to be responsible, and pointed out that wearing one’s pants like they do in prison wasn’t the way to get respect from employers and potential associates not recently out of prison. Mostly, however, he is determined to re-cast “The Cosby Show” as complicit in embedding racism in U.S. society. He writes in part:
While the depiction of a rich and “functioning” black family was superficially transgressive, “The Cosby Show” channeled a particular understanding of race, capitalism, “success,” and “middle class” identity that more often than not reinforced dominant American cultural norms and rules basically in line with the the Horatio Alger myth; it offered to viewers a harmless type of “diversity,” where blackness and the “Black experience” were massaged down into a throwaway mention of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or the struggle to end Apartheid, or simple guest appearances for accomplished black musicians, artists, and actors.
For most of its 8 seasons, “The Cosby Show” existed inside a bubble that was outside of the day-to-day lived experiences of the vast majority of black Americans. The events in bubble were white fantasies of black folks’ lives…The United States is a highly race-segregated and class-stratified society. (Seventy five percent of white people do not have one black friend.) Because of how separate and apart America’s neighborhoods, communities, and associational lives are from one another, television–with its distorted representations of black and brown folks’ humanity–is one of the primary ways that people in the United States learn about one another across lines of race and class. And ”The Cosby Show” lied to its white viewers about the nature of racism, white supremacy, and white privilege in the post-civil rights era United States. It told them of a world of black millionaires—people who were “just like them.”
…Only when fixed on “The Cosby Show” did the White Gaze see that black folks were not some type of Other, that instead they were “normal.” Affirming the humanity of fictional black people on a television show proceeded from an assumption that “real” black people were and are somehow alien and different. And that is profoundly racist.
At the same time, “The Cosby Show’s” erasure of white racism and its impact on the day-to-day lives of black people in the United States (from the rich to the poor) enables the colorblind white racist fiction and delusion that anti-black racism is a thing of the past. Moreover, the Cosby family was an African-American version of the model-minority myth, one of the favorite deflections and rejoinders of white racists in the post-civil rights era, where there are “exceptional” minorities and the rest are failures because they do not work hard, are lazy, and complain too much about white racism. While unintentional, “The Cosby Show” enabled some of the ugliest Reagan-era fantasies.
And so on. De Vega is a brave, professional anti-white race-baiter who won’t even publish under his own name. He knows nothing about the 1980’s even if he is in his forties, which I doubt, since at best he was a child when “The Cosby Show” first ran. Nobody argued that racism was a thing of the past during the Reagan Era; it was just a time that, unlike the Obama Era, aggressively dividing the races and portraying blacks as helpless victims of a racist society was not the objective of the government and the man in the White House. There was no “ugly fantasy” that it was easy for anyone, black or white, to become successful and happy in the United States, but the important truth that it is possible, it happens, and it mostly happens to those who are educated, honest, civil, hard-working, ambitious, intelligent, and, a lot of the time, lucky. That’s not a myth.
People like De Vega believe that self-determination and personal responsibility are ugly fantasies. With that world view, most American culture, past and present, must be both repugnant and incomprehensible to him. Thus handicapped, he is unqualified to make useful pronouncements about how an Eighties TV show was received by whites at the time. If anyone really thought Dr. Huxtable’s family was typical of African-Americans, they had the sense not to say so, since the idea was idiotic on its face, and is regarding any TV show family. However, there was and is a significant black middle class that previously had been all but invisible on television. My wife worked as a fundraiser for The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a D.C. based African-American think tank that studies the economy and politics of race in America. The scholars and staff there were unanimous in their belief that the image and themes presented by “The Cosby Show” represented a great step forward in race relations. It should be obvious, except to bigots and victim-mongerers like “Chauncey,” that recasting of the image of who American blacks were–like us—was essential to making it possible for a black man to be elected President in 2008.
The conspicuous lack of a genuine argument in the Salon piece is particularly illustrated by three aspects of it. The first is this mind-bending paragraph:
“Only when fixed on “The Cosby Show” did the White Gaze see that black folks were not some type of Other, that instead they were “normal.” Affirming the humanity of fictional black people on a television show proceeded from an assumption that “real” black people were and are somehow alien and different. And that is profoundly racist.”
Huh? So watching a show that portrayed blacks as normal—not criminal, not violent, not on public assistance, not victims— advanced the racist white theory that real blacks are not normal, or something. Seeing a fictional black family deal with the same problems that white families deal with and doing so with wisdom, kindness and grace appealed to whites because it reaffirmed their belief that real black families weren’t like that? What? We also knew that Robert Young’s family on “Father Knows Best” and “The Waltons” were too good to be true. This is why they are called “role models.” The fact that fictional characters are better than we are doesn’t make us feel worse about ourselves, or whatever groups and types of individuals those characters represent, unless we are badly warped and misanthropic, like, say, Chauncey. I admit that I may be misunderstanding him here, since the paragraph is just south of the ravings of a lunatic, but I think the principle he is espousing would mean that Xena was an anti-feminist character, that Perry Mason was an insult to lawyers, that “The West Wing” was really about how corrupt or leaders are, and “The Waltons” reaffirmed our belief that poor people are lazy and stupid.
The second marker of the author’s bias (and deficit in reasoning ability) is the nonsensical assertion that “The United States is a highly race-segregated and class-stratified society” with the junk statistic that 75% of white people do not have one black friend. The statistic itself is imaginary: what’s a friend? How would you determine this? Furthermore, people like to spend time with people like themselves, and there is nothing wrong with that. The results of the immutable feature of human nature is no society-dictated “segregation,” but freedom of association.
Finally, DeVega’s analysis would make any representation of African Americans on TV racist. Showing black characters who are poor, struggling, or criminal; angry, frustrated and full of racial animus? Racist stereotypes, feeding white fear and distrust!! Showing them as successful, educated, happy and responsible? A racist falsehood designed to allow white to ignore racial injustice! OK, then: how about showing no blacks at all on television? Discrimination!
Someone with as diseased a sensibility regarding race might come up with this kind of article at any time, but it only seems publishably plausible after the irrational but powerful force of cognitive dissonance does its corrosive work.
“Cosby is bad, so everything he’s ever said or done must be worse than we thought. Hey! Fat Albert was slam on overweight people! I just realized that! Who can explain why The Cosby Show was evil?”
I must emphasize that the person responsible for this is ultimately Bill Cosby. The values and lessons his TV show conveyed were important and valuable, and it was his duplicity and depravity that opened the door for them to be attacked and marginalized to suit the agendas of Salon, De Vega and others.