A judge in Norristown, Pa., has declared a mistrial in the Bill Cosby sexual assault trial after the jury failed to come up with a verdict. (Nicki DeMarco,Erin Patrick O'Connor,Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

In 1993, representatives from some of the country’s then-biggest investment banks were taking meetings with Bill Cosby, according to word around the Hollywood industry’s bicoastal streets.

Reports that the entertainer was angling to buy NBC, whose ratings had fallen among the nation’s largest networks, had found a place in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and almost all of the Hollywood trade publications. Cosby, the stories seemed to imply, was an entertainment heavyweight but business-naive, and his brand of wholesome, big smiles and hugs was unlikely to restore NBC to the network leader post it owned much of the time “The Cosby Show” was on the air.

For a slice of America, that decades-old story — along with a sprinkle of conspiracy and a heaping cup of suspicion — explains why Cosby faced sexual assault charges in a trial that ended Saturday with a hung jury. As the theory goes, the 79-year-old comedian made the establishment uncomfortable with his success when he tried to transform from entertainer to network owner, attempting to move out of the social and economic space that black Americans are supposed to inhabit. According to the theory, the powers that be — “the man” or, more specifically, the white establishment — is in the midst of a long-game act of revenge.

In the wake of the mistrial, that conspiracy theory — and assessments of the people who subscribe to it — are arising again. Cosby was on trial not because he admitted under oath that he obtained drugs to give to women and then have sex with them, nor because more than 60 women have accused him of sexual assault; according to this theory, Cosby was on trial because he violated the unwritten rules of race and social position.

To some, these accusations might sound like other conspiracy theories spread through social media recently, such as the tangle of rumors and lies that sent a gunman into a D.C. pizzeria in December under the false belief that he would free child victims of a nonexistent pedophilia ring there. But public opinion experts say there’s something more complicated and significant at work in the Cosby case that bears noting.

“Conspiracy theories help us to make sense of a lot of things,” said Niambi Carter, a political scientist at Howard University who researches race, politics and public opinion. “This particular type of conspiracy theory — the man is out to get us, to keep us down, to pen us in variety — resonates precisely because that has been and remains the truth of the black experience in the United States. Black Americans are painfully aware that they are regarded as a threat and extreme, sometimes deadly action can be taken against them not even when trying to buck the system but just trying to walk down the street.”

Motivational speaker Walter D. Smith — author of the book “Street Soldier” and former host of a Cleveland-based radio show of the same name — has a number of theories about Cosby’s guilt or innocence and has discussed the NBC purchase theory with fans on Facebook.

“I think what I believe a fair number of people suspect,” said Smith, who is black. “Bill Cosby really was the most powerful black man in the entertainment industry, but he is still a black man in America. What that means is he is only going to get but so much power before, in this country, somebody feels that it’s time to put you in your place, lock you up, take you down.”

Smith says he’s in a position to know. In 1986, he was wrongfully convicted of three rapes. DNA evidence tracked down by a reporter exonerated and helped to free Smith a decade later.

“I also know better than to have blind trust in the government,” he said.

In 2010, while “Street Soldier” was on air but before the tidal wave of public accusations against Cosby began, Smith interviewed Cosby for an hour, a conversation Smith described as “the pinnacle of my radio career.” Smith and Cosby shared the belief that the solution to the elevated number of young black men who die violent deaths lives in behavior, choices and, in Smith’s case, access to jobs.

Scroll through the right corners of social media, and it’s clear that Smith is not alone. Evidence of similar suspicions, and doubts about those suspicions, are in alcoves and enclaves of Twitter, YouTube and other social-media platforms. Cosby conspiracy theories are scattered like dandelion weeds across the Internet, and they seem to have stuck in the fiber of the broader culture, reinforcing some people’s reticence to acknowledge sexual crimes and blame alleged victims.

Now, some of Cosby’s staunchest defenders — people the online publication “The Daily Beast” called “Cosby Truthers” in 2015 — have found reason to remain in his camp because of  the NBC theory and others like it that resonate precisely because they acknowledge real and documented racial injustice and disparate treatment in the United States. Blacks who were particularly successful in the decades after the Civil War — who were able to exert a degree of social influence or purchase land or who were viewed as insufficiently humble — were frequently victims of white mob violence, land thefts, extortion efforts and, in a few instances, wholesale roundups that ran black people out of town. Disparate treatment remains an issue in schools, housing, criminal justice and other critical areas of life.

“It’s such an incredibly complicated situation,” said Ahmad Greene-Hayes, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and minister who operates the Children of Combahee initiative inside the Just Beginnings Collaborative, which works to end child sexual abuse. Green-Hayes’s project seeks to challenge the reasons people use to silence victims of sexual abuse, including fears about affirming racial stereotypes and ensnaring another black person in the criminal justice system.

“There is a deadly history of sexual allegations made against black men by white women,” Greene-Hayes said. “So I think many, many people are drawn to the theories. Some are torn, but, I think, most people are very clear about the question of guilt but perhaps less certain about what should happen to Bill Cosby.”

Long before the court announced that the Cosby jury had been unable to reach a verdict and declared a mistrial, there was at least some evidence that large portions of white and nonwhite America viewed Cosby differently.

In 1995, three years after “The Cosby Show” had left the air, a Gallup poll found that 90 percent of white Americans and 87 percent of nonwhites told pollsters they viewed the comedian favorably. (The poll did not include a large enough sample of black, Latino and Asian respondents to report statistically meaningful results for each group separately.) In the mid-1990s, just 4 percent of whites and 2 percent of nonwhites said the opposite.

But when Gallup asked the same question in 2015, after a number of women had publicly accused Cosby of sexual assault, intimidation, harassment and other, related wrongdoing, the public’s view of Cosby changed in two important ways. Just 21 percent of white Americans described Cosby favorably, and 35 percent of nonwhites did the same. However, 70 percent of white Americans and 46 percent of nonwhites told pollsters that they view Cosby unfavorably.

The number of people who held Cosby in high esteem collapsed across racial and ethnic lines. But a significant gap emerged in the share of white and nonwhite Americans expressing a definitive, negative view of Cosby. Conspiracy theories, particularly the degree to which the NBC theory has remained alive in private conversations and in the country’s largely segregated online social networks, may provide part of the explanation.

There are actually a number of conspiracy theories circulating about Cosby and the supposed cause of his troubles, said Shayla Nunnally, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut who researches race, public opinion and political behavior.

“What they have in common is a connection to long-running tropes about the notion of a place for black people in America, a certain set of limits that must be observed or there will be consequences,” Nunnally said. “The idea that there can only be so much success and power. But as wild as those ideas may sound to some people, it’s important to remember that they differ from simple lore or paranoia fed by fake news about power and activity in smoke-filled rooms. These Cosby conspiracies are ideas bolstered by a very real history and experiences which black people, people of color, have every day.”

What’s critical, Carter said, is that people contemplating the Cosby case outcome dedicate minimal attention to the apparent massive gulf between the real Bill Cosby and beloved characters such as “The Cosby Show” patriarch Heathcliff Huxtable.

“All those things are great, but that’s fiction and has no bearing on who this man may actually be,” Carter said. “The positive image of black people and families Bill Cosby put on national TV on “The Cosby Show” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for Bill Cosby forever. If Bill Cosby did, in fact, assault these women, then that is something for which Bill Cosby will need to pay. And this case has given us something to think about as a nation, which is not a terrible thing. That’s the nature of sexual assault, the number of people who do not report and why.”