By Jamal Mtshali
Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech forever altered Cliff Huxtable’s palatable image. Cosby had not been known for stridence—or any significant political or social commentary, really. Jell-O? Cardigans? Sexual assault? Sure. Each of these things figured in the schema associated with Cosby (in all fairness, the third only became a synonym for “Cosby” a decade later).
But “Pound Cake” was a different jingle—less gelatinous yet more appetizing to America’s insulin-resistant masses. America devoured. Cosby’s criticisms of the black community’s gross imperfections and shortcomings were lauded by many, perhaps effusively so by mainstream America.
He arraigned the usual suspects: negligent and absent black fathers; insolent, truant, rambunctious, gang-banging adolescent black males; and irresponsible, ever-pregnant teenage black women. In a harangue of the black “lower” income bracket that elicited scarce smiles from the stone-cold faces of Middle America, Cosby cast stones in a paternalistic back-in-my-day fashion.
He didn’t even spare rod-shy single black mothers, inquiring of their orange jumpsuit-donning sons, “Where were you when he was two…twelve…eighteen? Why didn’t you know he had a pistol?”
Of course, all this was before Cosby again reintroduced himself to the American public as a prolific dispenser of Quaaludes—and probable rapist, to boot. Cosby came to the NAACP’s 50th anniversary celebration of the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling equipped with statistics, attesting to the “50 percent [high school] dropout rate” among black students as well as a similarly credible claim of the commonality of black women having babies by “five or six different men.” He also bore anecdotal testimony of young black males getting “shot in the head over…pound cake!” by police officers whose lethal judgment we shouldn’t dare question. Why? “What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
Black America’s dysfunction is often said to result from its imprudent use of a broken moral compass. This explains the misdirection of irresponsible, marijuana-smoking, baby-making, school-quitting (and, according to Bill, pound cake-stealing) black teenagers, as well as criminal, sex-crazed, malingering adult black men (not to mention the tax dollar-embezzling black women for whom conception is a fiscal matter).
Cosby’s thoughtful analysis assumed an interestingly xenophobic slant, insisting that in its misguided, ignorant, linguistically inept African American youth, America was breeding its own “ingrown immigrants” who like to “shoot…and do stupid things” for kicks.
In spite of such perspicacity, Cosby’s remarks were not without detractors. Many in the black community rebuked Cosby for his hyperbolic, extended lamentation, accusing him of spewing fabricated anecdotes in the vein of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” fables and neglecting systemic racism’s role in engendering many of the ills to which he colorfully alluded.
To them, Cosby did nothing productive except add to the black stereotype repertoire—that of the hungry black male who risks his life and those of others for to-die-for—literally—cakes and pizzas. Perhaps killing over fruits and salads would, to Mr. Cosby, be a more salubrious, forgivable pathology (not to mention something we could never conceive of Fat Albert doing).
In Is Bill Cosby Right?, scholar Michael Eric Dyson issued a pointed rebuttal to Cosby’s comments. Dyson argued that Cosby’s deprecations were shortsighted and accused Cosby of shifting the blame too far from the problem of institutional racism. Dyson insisted, “All the right behavior in the world won’t create better jobs with more pay,” and added, “…if the rigidly segregated educational system continues to miserably fail poor blacks by failing to prepare their children for the world of work, then admonitions to ‘stay in school’ may ring hollow.”
Contrarily, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly commended Cosby, stating that he was preaching “self-reliance” and that those in contention with Cosby were making “excuses.”
Cosby’s cognitive dissonance with regard to racism—a more direct and explicit problem during his youth—is rather stunning. His nostalgia over the seeming cultural coherence of his era is unbridled. He adds that African Americans back in his day, “[Knew it was] important to speak English,” at least when not hanging out on the street corner.
Cosby evokes shame in lackadaisical and imprudent black youth, reminding them of the stalwart blacks of his day who were showered in “rocks” and “firehoses” for such opportunities which their posterity now squandered. Cosby’s statements corroborated what much of White America wanted to proclaim but was often afraid to.
Several studies corroborate the ubiquity of belief in such stereotypes among Americans—and white millennials prove no exception. Views on work ethic, intelligence, interracial relationships, and beyond reveal the prevalence and persistence of bias against African Americans.
But Cosby’s publicized corroboration of such attitudes lent an enlivening air of legitimacy. It’s one thing for someone white to proclaim such beliefs. But for a famous, respected black man to qualify sentiments ubiquitous in white America was vindicating. White America sighed, praising Cosby—“Finally, one of them’s got it figured out!”
Where does mainstream America’s perception of a black America in dire need of calibration come from? Is it procured from nightly newscasts? Reality series on VH1 or Black Entertainment Television? Are Americans confusing the subject matter of fictional television shows and movies with real life? Perhaps there is a sounder, empirical basis. Perhaps researchers are bivouacking in housing projects, recording observations of the rough and wild African American habitat.
Clearly, there is some sort of intimacy that gives mainstream America license to profess certain and legitimate understandings of just what black America is really like. Whatever the method of research, white America is quite confident in the conclusions it draws from it.
Gallup polls from 1962 and 1963 indicate that the overwhelming majority of whites thought that blacks received equal treatment with regard to opportunities for jobs, schooling, and housing. Needless to say, these sentiments were contradicted by the national conflagration that erupted in response to the question of whether blacks deserved equal rights in America.
That such attitudes were pervasive in the early ’60s seems preposterous. As for today, we feel we have arrived. We boast of equal opportunity not as an unrealized ideal, but a social norm, and hold any further agitation for rights as unnecessary, perhaps even threatening to the ideal of equality.
This time we got it right. Racial prejudice has been erased, a black president was elected, and Dr. King’s dream has at last come to fruition. Racism is a documentary, a history term paper, a museum exhibit. But to speak of racism in a modern context? That’s beating a beast slayed long ago.
Except that beast has not been slayed; we know this by our reflection. Racism is not a tired topic—racism is itself tired.
The ability to grasp this distinction separates Americans like Bill Cosby (and the millions who, in the wake of his sexual assault scandal, retain the message but not the messenger) from Americans who get that race is a neglected blight on America’s moral legacy. The sound research conducted by the Cosby crowd has convinced them that racism lives only in imagination, an extinct Easter Bunny poached by a suddenly race-blind America in the 1960s only to be resurrected by a modern, attention-seeking, race-baiting element.
Americans still look forward to the day when racism exhales its last breath, living only in retrospective contexts. Considering institutional racism’s capacious respiration, that day seems far off.
In the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, ISIS, oil prices, debt-free college, gun control, and other salient issues found no shortage of room in the books, speeches, and debates of candidates. Institutionalized racism garnered more mention than in previous cycles (thanks largely to Black Lives Matter), but the topic remains, at best, an afterthought and, at worst, a sideshow rather than a national priority.
Even during the 2008 presidential campaign cycle, the most mention the subject of race received was in regard to President Obama’s ties to controversial pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Incendiary barks again seized media headlines in 2016 as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump eschewed antiquated, Nixon-era dog whistle technology for direct incitement to hatred and violence. Although Obama’s path to the White House depended on retreat from fiery rhetoric, Trump’s demagoguery has razed that road en route to the rebirth of a nation.
We should know by now that antiblack racism is the fulcrum on which America turns. Whether preached by Cosby, Trump, or any of the tens of millions of faithful adherents to the myth, the belief in the black spirit’s inherent, unalterable deplorability sanctions the persistence of unrelenting, brutal injustice perpetrated against the black community in America today. Donald Trump’s ascendance is merely the latest reminder of the potency of the myth. This myth, a tenet of America’s national ethos, will give rise to more demons unless opposed with unwavering agitation and unadulterated truth—better known as “racebaiting.”
Adapted from the chapter “Get Over It” in Jamal Mtshali’s Last in Line: An American Destiny Deferred, published by African American Images and available on Amazon. For more on the author, visit www.JamalMtshali.com.