The shift in perceptions of Cosby, from revered comedian to more of a public scold, may be costing him support in the black community as he battles decades-old accusations of drugging and sexually assaulting women.
Few people outside Cosby’s circle of family and friends are rallying around him. Besides the gravity of the accusations, Cosby’s own words may help explain why.
“He’s asking people to pull up their pants and act right,” said Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. “People are questioning, ‘Why were you unzipping yours and pulling yours down?’”
More than 15 women have come forward since November claiming to have been drugged, sexually assaulted or both by Cosby, who has never been charged in connection with any of the allegations.
A 2005 lawsuit by a Pennsylvania woman was settled before it went to trial. Earlier this month, prosecutors in California declined to pursue charges against him in the case of Judy Huth, who claimed Cosby molested her 40 years ago. She is one of two women currently suing the entertainer.
Since his iconic sitcom “The Cosby Show” ended in the early 1990s, Cosby has moved away from the benign “Heathcliff Huxtable” father figure to a chastising curmudgeon, scolding African Americans for what he deemed irresponsible behavior.
The most famous of his critiques came in Washington, D.C. a decade ago during a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional.
Cosby cited a range of behaviors, from speech and attire to single-parent households and dropout rates as high as 50 percent in some cities. “Parenting is not going on,” he said. Lower-income families are not “holding their end in this deal.”
“I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit,” he elaborated. “Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? And where is his father, and why don’t you know where he is?”
Cosby’s comments prompted spirited debate. Some commentators backed his call for greater personal responsibility, while others decried the harsh tone he invoked when talking about poorer blacks.
Now, Cosby’s criticism may be causing younger blacks not to defend him, said Tamara Winfrey Harris, author of an upcoming book on black women and marriage. They don’t have the connection and affection with Cosby that older blacks have.
“There are generations of young black kids,” she said, “who didn’t grow up with the Huxtables as the picture of the perfect black family.”
“They don’t see him as being on their side, so they’re not on his,” she said.
That was the attitude of 31-year-old comedian Hannibal Buress, who mentioned the accusations against Cosby during an October show in Philadelphia. That prompted the latest round of accusations from women.
“He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the 80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’” Buress said. “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”
Hundreds of thousands of people later viewed the segment from Buress’ performance in online videos.
Since the allegations emerged, NBC halted work on a Cosby sitcom that was under development. Netflix indefinitely postponed a special that was set to premiere last month. And at least 10 performances in Cosby’s standup comedy tour were canceled.
Cosby’s wife, Camille, stepped forward earlier this month to defend him. She called him kind, generous and a wonderful husband and father. “He is the man you thought you knew,” she said.
Their daughter, Evin Cosby, similarly defended him on social media as “the FATHER you thought you knew.”
Cosby himself tried to rally the black community to his side, saying he expected “our black media to uphold the standards of excellence in journalism, and when you do that you have to go in with a neutral mind.”
That prompted Bob Butler, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, to immediately fire back, telling TMZ that, as journalists, “You don’t go easier on a person with color.”
Last week, Cosby’s spokesman David Brokaw issued a statement denying Cosby expected special treatment from black media, expressing dismay with criticism by Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of a book questioning Cosby’s call for black social responsibility.
Follow Jesse J. Holland on Twitter @jessejholland
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