THINGS aren’t looking good for Bill Cosby. As rape and sexual assault allegations against the entertainer mount up, more and more institutions are severing their ties with him and withdrawing honours bestowed on him. Last week he resigned from a university board of trustees, the US Navy revoked his status as an honorary petty officer, and the word “rapist” was scrawled on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
More than two dozen women have now made similar allegations of being assaulted by Cosby, and as Judy Huth came forward to claim he molested her at the Playboy Mansion when she was 15, venues across the United States began cancelling his sold-out stand-up appearances.
To anyone who has followed Cosby’s public proclamations in recent years, it may have come as a surprise to learn the 77-year-old was still selling out venues. Not because of his age (it is widely agreed he remains sharp as a tack) and not even because of the rape claims (some of which have, it should be noted, been public knowledge for years) but because of his politics.
It’s been 10 years since Cosby delivered his notorious “pound cake” speech, at a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs Board of Education case that outlawed racially segregated schools. If his comments were inflammatory then, they sound even worse now, at a time when outrage over the treatment of black people by police has bubbled over – first in Ferguson, Missouri, and now across the US.
“Cosby has taken aim at the parents of those youngsters who offended his middle-class sensibilities by wearing their jeans slung low, and lashed out at women having children by multiple fathers”
Addressing criminality among 21st-century black people, Cosby contrasted the political activists arrested during the civil rights era with youths engaging in petty theft. Overtly mocking those who spoke out against the use of deadly force by police in cases of the latter, such as that involving a young man stealing a cake, he said: “What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?” He was met not only with applause, but with laughter too.
No-one was laughing last week when a grand jury decided to not press charges against New York police over the July killing of Eric Garner, an asthmatic father of six who was wrestled to the ground and restrained by the neck as he gasped “I can’t breathe”. There was nothing in his hands – video footage of the incident seems to support the suggestion that his crime, punishable by death, was that of being black in public.
Cosby didn’t content himself with blaming black men – as opposed to racism – for their persecution by police. He also took aim at the parents of those youngsters who offended his middle-class sensibilities by wearing their jeans slung low, asking “are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up?” It’s no surprise those words are now coming back to haunt him, along with those raising that ever-reliable red flag of an unhealthy preoccupation with other people’s sexuality. Lashing out at women having children by multiple fathers, he said “pretty soon you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to,” before rambling into bizarre territory by suggesting youthful promiscuity could culminate in people having sex with their own grandmothers.
Of course, here in the UK we have become depressingly familiar with the story of the high-profile entertainer exposed as a sexual predator. But the Cosby case is slightly different. Rolf Harris has never positioned himself as a political activist; Jimmy Savile was viewed during his lifetime as a charitable oddball, not a role model. Cosby has more in common with the American right-wing evangelists so regularly and predictably exposed as hypocrites, if not criminals, when it comes to their own sexual conduct. He is as much a Keith O’Brien as a Dave Lee Travis, and accordingly his fall from grace is all the more dismaying to those who were raised on wholesome family sitcom The Cosby Show, and those who dared to dream that Barack Obama’s election might usher in a “post-racial” era in America.
Cosby has yet to face any charges in a criminal court. But by adding his loud, influential voice to those already blaming black Americans for their own deaths at the hands of those with a duty to protect and serve, and helping contribute to the toxic culture that proved deadly for Eric Garner, Michael Brown and so many before them, he is already guilty of betraying the people who made him into the untouchable celebrity that until very recently he remained.
The article was first published in The Herald on December 8 2014