Cosby under fire

Posted: Jul 01, 2005 12:00 AM

The votes are in from a new TiVo poll to find the country's "Favorite TV Dad." It's no surprise to me that the winner was Bill Cosby's Heathcliff Huxtable. What a paradox: Even though America's long-lasting warmth for Cosby and his classic 1980s series "The Cosby Show" lingers, inside the black community, Cosby is a lightning rod for criticism and abuse.
When "The Cosby Show" hit the airwaves, the star opened himself up to vicious attacks from some cultural pundits who seemed to have a political investment in racism and division and no patience for Cosby's positive portrayal of the successful black family. Cosby was such a glutton for punishment that he funded a study by two hostile academics at the University of Massachusetts, published in a 1992 book titled "Enlightened Racism." They attacked the show for promoting the "dangerous myth" that unsuccessful blacks have only themselves to blame, and that Cosby was relieving white viewers of their responsibility for racial inequality.

 There is no doubt that these academics, so contemptuous of images of wealthy, well-educated blacks functioning in harmony with whites, must hate what Cosby's been doing for the last year. He has been touring inner cities with minimal publicity, challenging blacks to stop blaming the "system" and take responsibility for their own lives. He is telling them to stop doing nothing about the outrages of the inner city. He is decrying the sense of hopelessness. He is asking for the uplift of the black community in the sorriest corners of America.

 Now, academics are fighting him again. Author Michael Eric Dyson has gone after him with a full-length book asking "Is Bill Cosby Right?" His subtitle answers the question: "Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" He claims Cosby represents a snooty "Afristocracy" of black professionals denouncing the "ghettocracy" of single mothers and inner-city gangsters. Dyson complained there's "nothing like a formerly poor black multimillionaire bashing poor blacks to lend credence to the ancient assaults they've endured from the dominant culture."

 I wonder if Mr. Dyson has lost his mind. In an interview on his book with the New York Times Magazine, he suggested that "None of us want our children to be murderers or thieves. But Cosby never acknowledges that most poor blacks don't have a choice about these things." Don't have a choice? If this is not the most perfectly pathetic example of excuse-making, I don't know what is.

 ABC's "Nightline" gained an exclusive interview with Cosby that aired on June 29. They filmed Cosby's speech in St. Louis. It was so passionate, so eloquent, so persuasive. Reporter Michel McQueen acknowledged that Cosby wins critics over when he comes into troubled communities and brings hard truths to the people there.

 Cosby's words speak volumes. "I'm saying to the lower-income African-American community, those of you who are living and seeing things that oughtn't be, those of you who are feeling afraid of your own people: There was a time when we were not afraid of our own children. We were not afraid of our friends' children. There was a time."

 How can one oppose that vision?

 The crowning irony of Cosby's critics is their need to dip into the fact that Cosby has not lived a sterling personal life in his own right. ABC's McQueen felt she had to bring it up. Do "your own foibles, true or untrue, somehow disqualify you from these issues?" In 1997, the networks all covered at length the paternity squabble with Autumn Jackson, who was Cosby's illegitimate daughter, and was convicted of extorting him. Since then, there have been other accusations of impropriety. Cosby replied that if he were waving off incoming traffic from an accident scene, would you not pay attention?

 Maybe the question "had to be asked," as McQueen claimed. Maybe it's a fair question -- if it was evenly applied by the media. But it's ironic that a man who is touting fidelity and talking about character-building, a comedian and a celebrity, draws more questions about allegations of his moral failings than media outlets or black leaders ever asked of presidents or civil rights leaders. Would McQueen suggest Martin Luther King's infidelity disqualified him from speaking out?

 The civil suits swirling around Cosby now, accusing him of inappropriate conduct, may be true or untrue. But Cosby's crusade has certainly brought him great scrutiny, scrutiny he might have avoided entirely had he comfortably retired and left the "ghettocracy" to run the inner city. It's a point lost on his critics, but worthy of consideration.