I started Michael Eric Dyson’s 2005 book, Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?). The book is a critique of Bill Cosby’s controversial 2004 speech before the NAACP. Dyson contends that Cosby in that speech was unfairly targeting the African-American underclass, which needs compassion and assistance, not blame and belittlement.
I’ll have plenty of opportunities over the next few days to talk about Dyson’s criticisms of Cosby’s arguments, so I won’t focus on that here. What I want to discuss in this post is what fascinated me in my latest reading of Dyson’s book, namely, Dyson’s point that Bill Cosby has made a conscious decision over the years not to talk about race.
Of course, Dyson in making that point is asking why Cosby suddenly decided to talk about race in his 2004 speech before the NAACP. That’s a good question, but it’s not of primary interest to me right now. What interested me was that Cosby’s ideas about racial equality actually influenced his long decision not to talk about race. Cosby did not want to portray himself as a black man, per se, but rather as a human being who happened to be black. He was promoting color-blindness: not looking at a person’s race. On I Spy, he was just a guy who was working with the Robert Culp character. In his comedic routines, Cosby talked about life rather than race. Cosby did not want for black people on television to be problems (i.e., victims of the problem of racism), but to be people, with aspirations, hopes, and dreams, just like white people. Cosby thought that could promote social equality between whites and African-Americans.
My impression is that Dyson, on some level, understands and is sympathetic towards where Cosby was coming from. Dyson believes Cosby was ultimately wrong not to focus on race, but Dyson can see the logic in Cosby’s approach. Dyson’s problem with Cosby’s approach is that it essentially pretended as if racism did not exist, as well as ignored African-American struggles and culture. In effect, it presented a distorted picture of what race relations were like.
Let’s take The Cosby Show. On the one hand, the show was good because it depicted an African-American doctor and lawyer. One way to undermine the stereotype that African-Americans can’t be doctors and lawyers is by showing competent African-American doctors and lawyers on TV. Hopefully, that would inspire African-Americans to want to become doctors and lawyers, and it would open white society up to accepting them as such.
But, on the other hand, whites may get the impression in watching The Cosby Show that most African-American families are upper middle-class, or that many African-Americans have a decent shot at becoming upper middle-class in this society. They may conclude that racism is not really a problem holding African-Americans back, and that conditions are better for African-Americans than they actually are.
As I said some posts ago, Cosby’s show, A Different World, actually did address the topic of racism. One could perhaps argue that it looked more at individual white people not liking blacks rather than systemic racism (though, of course, it is the former that leads to the latter), but there was an episode of A Different World that was pro-affirmative action, which indicates to me a support for systemic change. I thought that criticisms of Cosby for not focusing on race were not entirely true. Now, after reading parts of Dyson’s book, I see that Cosby himself acknowledged that he did not want to focus on race. That makes me wonder how one can account for A Different World. Was it an anomalous incident of Cosby responding to his critics’ concerns? Was there a part of Cosby that wanted to look at race, but usually did not due to a fear of alienating white audiences?