Bill Cosby in New York in 2011.
Lucas Jackson—Reuters
By John McWhorter
November 21, 2014
IDEAS
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

With the curtain falling on Bill Cosby’s career in the wake of multiple accusations of his raping women throughout his career, many have asked why it took so long for America to condemn the man. This seam in his past has been aired quite often over the past 10 years, and yet his iconic status as America’s favorite (black) Dad has continued, with NBC having even been readying to build yet another sitcom around him until this Wednesday. What is it about now that is making us — white, black and other — see Cosby plain?

Partly, Barack Obama and Herman Cain.

Of course, two other factors, more apparent, have played a role — but alone, they would not have popped the lock.

For one, Cosby has alienated many black people with his criticisms of black behavior, crystallized in the now famous “Pound Cake speech” of 2004 commemorating Brown v. the Board of Education. When black comedian Hannibal Buress charged that Cosby is a racist, sparking the latest events when the clip went viral, Buress was explicit that it rankles him that Cosby has called for black people to “Pull your pants up,” etc. when Cosby himself had, shall we say, not done so.

Yet, the dirt on Cosby had been aired far and wide soon after the Pound Cake speech, with black author and pundit Michael Eric Dyson even covering the territory in his 2005 book, a broadside against Cosby’s cultural opinions. Newsweek, The Today Show, People, and other sources chimed in around the same time. No one remotely interested in Cosby could have missed the charges, and while today Twitter and Facebook get things around especially quickly, by 2005 and 2006 broadband and blogs were already influencing opinion at a dizzying rate. Irritation over Cosby’s views alone, then, did not threaten his iconic status — especially given that more black people than often acknowledged actually concur with Cosby’s cultural opinions.

The second factor in why Cosby has been outed now — one that is key, but not decisive — is that sexual violation of women has been so widely discussed in America over the past few years. The “legitimate rape” conceptions of congressman Todd Akin and today’s calls for universities to address the frequency of rape on their campuses have made it much less likely that Cosby’s behavior could be given a pass.

But even this doesn’t fully answer the “Why now?” question. Enlightened American sensibilities about rape have not taken a quantum leap since, say, 2005. The major dividing line for that would be in the early ’90s, when sexual harassment and date rape entered mainstream discussion and forever banished the old-time Mad Men idea that such things were a mere matter of some men being “all hands.” Who by 2005, upon hearing about what Cosby did, was thinking “Oh well, boys will be boys!”?

We get closer to truth in Rebecca Traister’s point that America has been afraid to condemn Cosby out of a sense that it would be almost sacrilegious to pull down such an iconic representation of blackness. More specifically, whites have given him a pass out of a sense that it would be racist not to, while blacks have been reluctant to assist in the defrocking of such a beloved figure, chary of aiding and abetting whites in racist dismissal of black achievement and authority.

What has made the difference is that certain happenings of late have let America make a particular kind of post-Civil Rights adjustment: getting past the polite fiction that all criticisms of a black person are racist, and if not overtly then “on a certain level.”

Namely here is where Cain and Obama come in. The implosion of Herman Cain’s quest for the Republican nomination in 2011 in the wake of charges (from white women) of sexual harassment and infidelity was a handy transition. Cain’s Republican politics and jolly dismissal of traditional Civil Rights positions meant that few blacks were primed to dismiss the accusations against him as racist, as a “lynching,” and so on. Instead, we simply saw Cain as a man brought down for proper reasons, his color beside the point.

It probably had to be a black Republican that this happened to. But since then, a consensus has settled in on the question as to how much of a part racism plays in the animus of those who dislike President Obama. And the verdict is: racism does play some part. But still, only ideologues think racism is the only reason, or even close to the only reason, someone might not be crazy about Obama’s performance in the Oval Office.

At best, Obama is likely to go down as having been an OK President, and in grappling with that, Blue America has gotten a quiet lesson in evaluating black people according to the content of their character — despite having thought they already did that by voting for him in the first place.

Hence a moment when it is newly easy to see Cosby not as a Black Gentleman With Some Issues but as a man, period, with some serious moral flaws, deserving no more “understanding” about it than Senator Bob Packwood did about his related tendencies. Meanwhile, black America, having seen that in our times the public can turn on, or trenchantly criticize, a black public figure without igniting a general backlash against black achievement, is less likely to circle the wagons around someone like Cosby than it formerly would have been.

What stings about Cosby is that someone with his warm humor and furious commitment to uplift could at the same time have such a pitilessly abusive take on women and sex. It’s like finding this out about your Dad, or certainly for me. Cosby and my own father were both working-class black men of a certain Philadelphia generation, and there was even a commonality of demeanor; my father was funny in the exact same way as Cosby, and danced just like Cosby did in the credits of the Cosby Show.

But Dad didn’t rape women. The lesson is that that kind of evil can lurk in the hearts of any kind of man, and we need to watch for it and call it out when it turns up to dissuade its survival in our civilization. And this time we’re learning it not from A Black Man, but from someone we, in a way, honor by treating as just a man. Weirdly, this is a kind of progress.

Read next: Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby and the Oppressive Power of Silence

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