More than 30 women have accused Bill Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them in incidents dating all the way to the 1960s. However, even before these accusations and his own admissions in a recently unsealed court deposition were reintroduced to the public, Cosby was already a controversial figure in the black community because of his comments—starting with his infamous “Pound Cake” speech—about behaviors and values he believed negatively impacted African Americans.
A quick scan of Cosby’s thoughts on crime, family and black men, coupled with the seriousness of the allegations he faces, make it easy to see why a man who was once “America’s dad” has so few people left to defend him now.
On pound cake thieves: “Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
Cosby’s take on black criminal behavior was one of the many lines that made the 2004 “Pound Cake” speech an indelible part of his public record. It is also important to understand the magnitude of his words at a time when there is a serious move to end mass incarceration and demand police accountability even in cases where officers kill unarmed African Americans who may not be seen as “perfect victims.”
On black families and responsible fatherhood: “In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.”
Also from his 2004 speech, Cosby’s beliefs about the importance of marriage and fatherhood are shared by many African Americans, including President Barack Obama. It’s also a view that many progressives criticize as an endorsement of responsibility politics and a distraction from attempts to change policies that disproportionately impact communities of color.
On black men, rage and rape: “Black males who already feel insecure around white people resent feeling a similar kind of insecurity around ‘strong’ black women. But no one can take a man’s physical power away, certainly not women. That’s why sometimes—too often—black men overcompensate with rage.
They direct their destructive rage against black women in any number of unfortunate ways—verbal abuse, batter, even rape.”
This last quote is from a section of Cosby’s 2007 book Come on, People. The book reads like a self-help guide for black America that touches on a number of topics, including media consumption, education and violence. This quote, while not one of his more controversial, is pulled from a section ironically titled, “Sisters, Hang in There.” It shows the degree to which Cosby’s public persona differed from his private practices.
It is these contradictions in Bill Cosby’s public and private lives that bring us to this moment. The judge that unsealed his 2005 deposition cited his role as a “public moralist” as his reason for disclosing the documents. Early Cosby critics like Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of a book that directly addressed Cosby’s harsh words toward poor blacks, cited his reluctance to directly address racism in his comedy or television shows as one the most troubling aspects of his comments about black behavior.
Cosby’s ability to strike a chord with the black masses, as evidenced by the popularity of the “callouts” he held in multiple cities after his 2004 speech, cannot be overlooked. His straight talk on parenting, education and culture may have sounded strange to the mainstream media but it is supported by data. A 2010 study from the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of African Americans (pdf) believed a child needed both parents in the home to grow up happily. Another study (pdf) found that only 30 percent of blacks saw discrimination as the main reason our community couldn’t get ahead, and 70 percent saw rap music as a bad influence on society.
While Cosby’s message about personal responsibility resonated with many of his fans, it is his contributions to black culture that his supporters—even as the list of women accusing him of sexual assault grew—tried to protect. He gave us shows that normalized the black middle-class experience, challenged the negative images of black people that have shaped American media, championed the importance of education and donated generously to black institutions.
Bill Cosby’s work to reshape the image of black people is laudable, but engaging in victim blaming or advancing racial conspiracy theories about efforts to bring down another powerful black man is dangerous, given the consistency of his accusers’ accounts and his own words. The pursuit of justice can't only apply to attempts to defeat institutional racism or white supremacy. In order to wield moral authority, we must be able to address the misdeeds of friends as clearly as we do our foes.
It’s clear that both his supporters and early detractors recognize the importance of Bill Cosby’s legacy. For many, the Huxtables were the Obamas before anyone ever heard of Barack or Michelle. For others, his brand of bootstrap conservatism is counterproductive.
Either way, Cosby's own actions have likely destroyed much of what he worked so hard to build. He has become a radioactive spokesman for messages that appealed to many black people, and failure to account for his behavior will only push him further into the margins of American culture. His actions speak to his character and agenda. How we respond to them speaks to ours.