In 1994, Bill Cosby delivered his magnum opus on respectability politics at an NAACP black-tie event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. His now infamous "Pound Cake Speech" was a long and exhaustive rundown of every single "get off my lawn" cliché known to old-mankind. But the coup de grâce was the anecdote that gave the diatribe its nickname:
"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?"
As implausible as it sounds, Cosby's suggestion that a black boy who steals some cake from a store is asking to have his brains blown out was only the second worst thing he did that day. The worst thing he did was saying that when he, himself, had very possibly drugged and raped at least 41 women.
Long before the "Pound Cake Speech" and the myriad of rape allegations, Cosby was something of a saint in my family. I watched The Cosby Show religiously growing up and it had a profound impact on me. From the first episode, in 1984, it presented an idea of black life that was so perfect, so alluring, it even made me, a black kid stranded in an overwhelmingly white Pennsylvania steel town, feel proud of who I was.
Rather than a show about race, The Cosby Show was about black excellence. It rarely if ever mentioned whiteness. It was about us, not them. And this is the way I remember it being in my house, too. Growing up, I only heard one message about white people: "You have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good." That was it. Succinct and ominous.
I carried that notion with me as I came of age and went out into the world. But it backfired. Instead of making me work twice as hard, it just made me twice as scared and half as confident. What if I could only manage to work 1.75 times as hard? Would that be enough to stop them from putting me behind bars or in a pine box for no good reason? In fact, the main thing I remember thinking about white people in my younger years (which in retrospect was really a stand-in for the entire adult world) was: If they won't let me, I shouldn't even try.
This is the problem with respectability politics, the ideology that suggests people can overcome their systemic oppression by improving their personal behavior. It puts the pressure on individuals to singlehandedly be so great that they defeat a system designed to subjugate millions. And if they fail at the impossible, then they just aren't good enough. It is, in essence, victim blaming.
The other problem with respectability politics is if you genuinely believe that each individual must singlehandedly overcome their structural oppression, then you have zero incentive to stop the oppression in the first place. It's up to them to stop it. And if they can't, tough shit.
This actually works out pretty well for the oppressor. And if the oppressor happens to be a member of an oppressed group, it makes for a particularly sinister intersection. The sentiment is something like, "I over came this oppression by being awesome, so I'm not sure what your problem is." This is at the core of why, when Cosby gave his "Pound Cake Speech," the NAACP crowd of Great Black Men Who Did Great Things, just applauded, stamped, and laughed. They didn't tell him to sit his Uncle Tom ass down and shut up for spouting off the rhetoric of a racist troll because in many cases their livelihoods are just as beholden to extolling mythic individualism as Cosby's.
The pernicious concept behind oppression being the oppressed's problem also aligns Cosby's politics of respectability with the "she was asking for it" element of rape culture. In thinking about this connection, I couldn't help recalling a bit I heard Cosby do in the 1986 standup recording "Those of You with or Without Children, You'll Understand." In explaining why he doesn't need to talk to his son the same way he does his daughters about birth control, he theorizes, "It's the female's job to protect herself. It's like a goalie… you have to keep people from scoring on you." The audience groans, Cosby's wife sets him straight, and eventually he talks to his boy. It's played for laughs. But in light of his rape allegations, it's chilling. He couldn't have made it any plainer. A woman must protect herself. A man has no obligation to control his behavior. As gross as the bit is, just like the NAACP speech, you can hear men and women in that audience cheering for him on the recording. They probably stood up and asked for an encore.
A career based on an idea of individual achievement should rightfully be destroyed by an individual failing.
Cosby has been preaching the gospel of the individual overcoming systemic oppression (and blaming people who fail to do it) for his entire career. So is it hard to believe he would blame a woman for being young and pretty and alone in a room with him? Is it hard to believe he could justify his alleged behavior by reasoning, very simply, that she failed to keep herself from "getting scored on?" Is it hard to believe he would do what he is accused of by 41 women, while simultaneously lecturing 40 million people on the improvement of their morals?
To call Bill Cosby a hypocrite is to miss the point entirely. For this to be hypocrisy, you would have to believe that he presented himself as one thing, while pretending to be another. You would have to believe that he knew and accepted that what he is accused of doing to those 41 women was wrong. But we have no evidence to support that.
Cosby's moralizing by day and alleged raping by night was not hypocrisy. It was something much worse. The only way he could have been so strident in his presentation of himself as a good person is if he believed he was one.
In his mind, drugging women so that they couldn't prevent him from having sex with him didn't make him bad. This is a sick belief, and one from which we recoil in horror. But it's not the belief of a sick man. Rather, it is the belief of a man very much in touch with reality. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no difference between being a loving, devoted, family man, a pillar of the community—and a rapist. Our culture will gladly allow you to be both. They will even invite you to speak and give you awards.
Whether or not he is ever convicted of rape, Bill Cosby will die a broken and deeply hated man. And this seems fitting. A career based on an idea of individual achievement should rightfully be destroyed by an individual failing. Unfortunately, the culture that cheered for him and paid for him to be our hero even when he behaved like a monster is still very much alive. Whom do we blame for that?
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