"Obama IS Cosby:" The Cosby Effect@25

Just Cosby, without the phat sweaters….
Just Cosby, without the phat sweaters….

Dr. Sut Jhally wrote a book (with Justin Lewis) called Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream. He and I spoke some years ago back when Bill Cosby was talking about people’s mama. Given the anniversary of the show, it seemed like a good time to check in with him and hear his thoughts on the Cosby effect in a post-Obama America. Here, Jhally talks about his study on “The Cosby Show,” Cosby’s deal with white America and Obama’s “inner Huxtable.”

jimi izrael: Thanks so much for your time, Professor.

Sut Jhally: Sure.

For those who may not be familiar, thumb-nail the study.

The book was an audience study of readings of the Cosby Show, and we were interested in the basis of the popularity of the Cosby Show. We interviewed both black audiences and white audiences about their perceptions of the show … we found that with the black audiences, the show was popular because it gave another human side to blackness that hadn’t existed before {on TV}: a side of ordinariness, a side of decency, a side of respect. For white people, what Cosby gave was an acceptable way which they could interact with blackness, that is, a safe way.


How so?

The way Cosby did that was by making them middle class and not working class. The white audience liked Cosby because {his} was a safe blackness, and they did not have to confront any of the issues Americans normally have to confront with race. It was guilt-free consumption, and it was essential to the success of the Cosby Show, that whites could believe in their own innocence when it came to race.

Did Cosby commission the study or did he just provide one of the grants for it?

He provided one of the grants for it. We wanted to do the study, and we approached him because he was an alumnus. He had nothing to do with the results of the study, although he was very generous in funding it. It was around 16k that he gave. He had nothing to do with the actual results, and I would think he would not have been very pleased with the results, but you know… (laughs)

The first conversation we had some years ago, you gave me the impression that Cosby rejected the findings.

I don’t think we ever had an official response from Cosby… but I think he would say that one show can’t do everything and if he made black people human for some white people, that it was a step forward. What we would say is that Cosby is not in control of the broader class analysis of the show, and if you don’t have a class analysis and all you see is race, well, you have successful blacks and you have unsuccessful blacks, and therefore, if you have successful blacks, that shows anyone can make in America and those people who don’t make it, it’s their own fault.


Unpack that, please.

What we found was that, especially for white audience, to the extent that it showed a black successful family, it allowed them to think that race was a problem of the past , that we were living in a “post-racial” era. And for those blacks who didn’t make it, well, the problem was their own fault. It was a discourse that blamed the victims. So essentially, Americans no longer saw racism as an issue…people liked the Huxtables but they didn’t think there was racism that was holding {black people} back anymore… and therefore if there were black people that were being held back it was because they weren’t smart enough or lazy, etc. That’s why we call the book “Enlightened Racism.”


So, flash forward to post-Obama America. There are some people —-  and I think you are one of them – who say Barack Obama could not have gotten elected without the Cosby Show.

What Cosby did was give America a vision of what an acceptable black person would look like. An essential aspect of that was he was non-threatening. The central thing to understand about the Cosby Show and its success was the way in which it eleviated white guilt. {Here} was the deal Cosby made with white America: ‘ You can feel good every Thursday by interacting with a black family and feel good about how enlightened and cosmopolitan you are and how accepting you are and I will never once remind you of America’s racial past. I will never remind you of extreme poverty. I will never talk about all the things that make white Americans uneasy.’ That was the deal Cosby struck: you watch me, and I’ll make you feel good….you can feel good about yourself and never have to deal with the bigger issue of American racism.


What Obama did was learn from that. I don’t think he had any choice. I think Tim Wise said it: He channeled his “inner Huxtable.” He presented himself in the most non-threatening, non-alienating way. In a lot of ways, Obama IS Cosby, and I think you can see it most clearly during the Rev. Wright controversy… {he} used the image of the Cosby Show because he is white, but Obama is also black, but he is a safe blackness, and that is central to his appeal. So when it came to the Wright thing, he was like ‘I am not like Rev. Wright … I’m not an angry black man. I believe in the American Dream.’ Essentially, {Obama} was Cosby as opposed to Malcolm X. He was Cosby was opposed to Dr. Martin Luther King.

I have a weird TV theory about why blowback against the President coming from what appears to be working-class whites.


OK (?)

It harkens back to the battle between Bill Cosby’s America and Rosanne Barr’s vision of America: Cosby’s idealist middle-class propaganda versus Barr’s decidedly brash, harsh, view from the bottom… a clash of values and races…


That’s not bad, but I don’t know if we can find correlation to a logical certainty… though there may be something there. The problem with that theory is just like with Cosby, not everyone liked Obama, right? Some preferred other candidates, like some just preferred Roseanne. So I think the vitriol are from the people who didn’t vote for him, never liked him…and probably never watched Cosby either (laughs).

Single Father, Author, Screenwriter, Award-Winning Journalist, NPR Moderator, Lecturer and College Professor. Habitual Line-Stepper