The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill Cosby played respectability politics. It blew up in his face.

Becoming the moral scold of the black community ended up exposing Cosby's crimes.

A jury in Pennsylvania convicted comedian Bill Cosby on all three counts of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. (Video: Patrick Martin, Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)
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Bill Cosby’s luck finally ran out.

On Thursday, a jury convicted the 80-year-old on three counts of aggravated indecent assault: penetration with lack of consent, penetration while unconscious and penetration after administering an intoxicant. Though the conviction only covered the case of Andrea Constand, she served as a proxy for the more than 50 women who have accused Cosby of drugging and raping them.

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So the moment has finally come: “America’s favorite dad” has been convicted of rape. While few people lament the verdict, some worry that Cosby’s criminal actions will invalidate the good that he has done for black America. But Cosby was not good for black America. And, in fact, it was his betrayal of black America, as well as his devotion to the politics of respectability, that ultimately led to his downfall.

Bill Cosby first made history in 1965 when he became the first African American to co-star in a major network television drama — “I Spy” — and again in 1966 when he won an Emmy Award, the first of nine Emmys and Grammys (for best comedy album) that decade.

In the 1970s, Cosby became the first African American to star in his own eponymous comedy series, “The Bill Cosby Show,” which ran for two seasons, and he began working in children’s educational programming. He even earned a doctorate in urban education in 1977.

By the 1980s, Cosby’s infectious comedy had endeared him to parents and children alike. He was the educated, respectable, funny man, a master storyteller whose family stories affirmed the humanity and culture of everyday black folk. He taught them that it was okay to laugh at themselves and to love themselves, and they laughed and loved him for it. He was black America’s most celebrated entertainer, its pride and joy.

But apparently there was a hidden, darker side to Cosby: Even as he publicly appeared to be a wholesome hero for black Americans, Cosby was drugging and raping women — women who were silenced by his stature.

As Jewel Allison — who says she was assaulted by Cosby during this time — explained, “I didn’t want to let black America down.” The idea that coming forward would reinforce stereotypes of black men as sexually violent “sent chills” through Allison’s body. She feared that she wouldn’t just bring Cosby down, she would “undermine the entire African American community.”

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In the 1980s and 1990s, “The Cosby Show” and the spinoff  “A Different World” were two of NBC’s biggest hits, bringing the upper-middle-class Huxtables and black college students into living rooms across America. These shows not only paved the way for other sitcoms centered on middle-class black families, but more important, they helped spike enrollment at historically black colleges and universities by 24.6 percent.

The success of “The Cosby Show” catapulted Cosby to new heights. He projected an image of wholesomeness, refraining from swearing, memorably shilling for Jell-O with kids, while also emerging as a major philanthropic force.

In the 2000s, however, Cosby moved to use his fame to advance his politics, which transformed him from a much-celebrated actor into a deeply controversial figure.

Black America loved Cosby because his success had not caused him to forget the poor community which raised and nurtured him. But his politics stirred up intense debates as he reinforced a white supremacist value system that told black youth that their own creative imagination was of no value. His politics of respectability and black conservatism reinforced stereotypes of black pathology — criminality, anti-intellectualism, hypersexuality, family dysfunction — that gave America a reason to once again deny its culpability in maintaining the black underclass.

This assault on black America would prove to be Cosby’s undoing.

Cosby launched his controversial political career with the infamous “Pound Cake Speech,” which he delivered at the 2004 NAACP Image Awards. He justified the killing of an unarmed youth for stealing “a piece of poundcake.” He criticized those who dared to challenge an excessive use of force, stating, “But what the hell was he doing with the poundcake?”

Cosby took his Pound Cake Black Conservative Show on the road, constantly chiding young black men to “pull up your pants” (advice he should have adhered to himself). He never gave voice to issues of racism, sexism, the failed public school system, health and economic disparities, mass incarceration or police brutality. Instead, he spent over a decade disparaging black folk to the delight of white conservatives.

While Cosby’s philanthropy benefited historically black colleges and universities such as Spelman College and the Morehouse Medical School, he was largely an agent of oppression, ignoring systematic racism and dismissing the problems of the black urban underclass as self-inflicted, rather than structural.

Crosby’s turn to the politics of respectability, however, eroded the invincibility he once had in black America. In 2007 at the Miami International Book Fair, the legendary Black Arts poet Nikki Giovanni reprimanded the comedian. Chiding him for his betrayal of the community that had elevated him as the “Great Black Hope,” Giovanni said, “We ate that Jell-O and that mighty fine pudding, whatever he was doing with that. We would go in to have our pictures made and demand Kodak paper to try to help that Negro and then he’s going to turn around and tell me I’m a bad mother? Uh-uh, I’m not buying that.”

She wasn’t the only Cosby critic. Professor and political commentator Michael Eric Dyson lambasted the comedian in his 2006 book “Is Bill Cosby Right or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?” — a scathing commentary on the hypocrisy of Cosby’s Pound Cake Speech. Dyson continued his criticism of Cosby after sexual assault allegations against him surfaced publicly: “He’s throwing rocks, and he’s living in a glass house, so that contradiction will always get you sunk.”

Even as Cosby became deeply controversial in the black community, his aura of respectability remained intact until comedian Hannibal Buress shattered it in 2014, a pivotal moment that ended Cosby’s status as an untouchable star. During a performance in Philadelphia (Cosby’s home town), Burress directly connected Cosby’s respectability politics and his history of — at that point unprosecuted — sexual assault. Burress recounted that he hated the smugness with which Cosby lectured, “Pull your pants up, black people, I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom. Yeah,” Burress shot back, “but you raped women, Bill Cosby.”

Burress took an open secret and made it a front-page story. Within a few days, video of the set went viral, unleashing the media firestorm that Cosby had eluded for almost two decades. Given his denigration of the black underclass, especially young black men, this was poetic justice: Cosby’s demise delivered on his home turf by a young black male comedian.

The following year, the courts, too, decided that Cosby’s public role was justification for revealing his secrets. U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno unsealed a sworn 2005 deposition, in which Cosby admitted to acquiring prescriptions of Quaaludes to give to women for the purpose of sex. He reasoned that Cosby could not claim a broad right to privacy because he “has donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, child rearing, family life, education and crime. To the extent that Defendant has freely entered the public square and ‘thrust himself into the vortex of [these public issues],’ he has voluntarily narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim.”

In other words, Cosby paved the way for his own prosecution when he voluntarily anointed himself the moral scold of black America.

For certain, Cosby’s downfall is a tragic one. He was not only America’s favorite dad, but an elder statesman of black America whose philanthropy has helped many. In this desperate moment when merely breathing while black is a crime, this is the last thing black America needs.

But we must face the inconvenient truth that Cosby was living a double life of reprehensible proportions. A 20 million dollar gift to a prestigious black women’s college will never be enough to atone for the sins committed against the countless women who say he victimized them; millions donated to black museums will not undo the damage done by his respectability politics. There is some justness, though, in the knowledge that those same politics helped pave the way for this week’s verdict, and for justice, however delayed.