- Bill Cosby and American Racial Fetishism
Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people. They are showing you what’s wrong. People with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something? [emphasis added]—Bill Cosby, “Address”
Bill Cosby’s controversial “Pound Cake Speech,” delivered at the NAACP’s May 2004 commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, rapidly generated a stream of media commentary. The political context for the speech, which would have to include the conservative desire to criticize the NAACP and lay claim to the legacy of the civil rights movement, combined with the exhortative nature of the speech itself (Cosby told his audience to “hit the streets” and “clean it out yourselves”) that seemed to express deeply-held but taboo American sentiments regarding the black underclass, made for a voluminous and often virulent reaction. University of Pennsylvania humanities professor Michael Eric Dyson entered the fray almost immediately, and because, as he claims in Is Bill Cosby Right?, he “was one of the few blacks to publicly disagree with Cosby,” he “ended up in numerous media outlets arguing in snippets, sound bites, or ripostes to contrary points of view” (2). Having read or viewed some of Dyson’s early responses to Cosby’s remarks, I did not expect this book to deviate from the popular discourses through which issues of race are interpreted in the mainstream news media. Unsurprisingly, the media discussion of race following Cosby’s remarks was essentially similar to the one that preceded his remarks, with the difference, I think, that Cosby emboldened many white conservatives to make explicitly racist arguments about black bodies and black culture that they might otherwise have resentfully suppressed. Bill O’Reilly, for instance, complained that Cosby was allowed to say things for which “me and a number of other white Americans” have been “vilified” (“Cosby’s Crusade”). Liberal commentators, on the other hand, played their habitually impotent role in the debate on race, generally accepting Cosby’s remarks as truthful but claiming they were mean-spirited: they were careful not to question the dogma of black cultural pathology and instead limited themselves to critiquing the manner or spirit in which the remarks were made. Jabari Asim, for instance, believes “it is true that some blacks continue to engage in conduct that contradicts and undermines the aims of the civil rights movement,” adding that Cosby “has every right to take them to task.” Dyson, despite his comments about Cosby’s “elitism,” fits comfortably into the latter category, willing to concede the cultural inferiority of black Americans as the entry point into the legitimate discussion, and to work from there.
In Is Bill Cosby Right?, however, Dyson deviates from the strict doctrine of black cultural pathology in a couple of significant ways. First, while Dyson’s argument does, ultimately, resolve itself into a classic liberal reprimand of Cosby for his lack of sympathy, at certain points in his argument he also emphasizes the distinction between the ethical and the normative that is so often lost in discussions of race and inequality in the United States. Additionally, he offers two brief discussions of the performativity of racial identity that might have provided an alternative framework to the stultifying American dogma of race had Dyson been willing to acknowledge and develop more fully the implications of a performative theory of racial identity.
Dyson’s rhetorical strategy is to begin each chapter with a snippet of Cosby’s speech and to take Cosby’s claims initially quite literally, testing their facticity against empirical data. Cosby’s false claims and truncated analyses then serve as the basis from which Dyson provides a broader discussion of the immense gulf between the perceptions and realities of racial inequality in America. This strategy works most effectively, I believe, in the chapter titled “Classrooms and Cell Blocks,” which opens with Cosby’s assertion that there is a 50% drop-out rate for black high school students (a statistic Cosby also repeats...