Did Bill Cosby Beget Obama?

Well, it’s not quite that simple

On Saturday, The New York Times published a piece in its Arts section entitled “Before Obama, There Was Bill Cosby,” which unwittingly distills the disparate treatment by the press of race and class in this campaign. The piece makes the case that The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, was the central cultural phenomenon that laid the groundwork for a successful Obama candidacy—the idea being that, as the first TV show to depict a black family in a way that white America could identify with, it created a comfort zone around the notion of a stable black family headed by professionals.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but what the Times piece ignores is that the Huxtables represented “normal” life only by the standards of the white middle and upper middle class. Meanwhile, many black communities around America in the eighties were being decimated by Reaganomics, AIDS, and the crack epidemic. The Huxtables were “safe” blacks in the age of crack, and reinforced the idea of the general accessibility of The American Dream—that if you work hard, you don’t need government help.

It’s interesting that the article notes a 1994 study of the show by Sut Jhally, a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts, which became a book entitled Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audience, and the Myth of the American Dream, but doesn’t let the book’s harsh critique interrupt the positive narrative of the article.

Jhally’s book (co-authored with Justin Lewis), about which the Times piece says only that it was “critical” of the show, concludes that The Cosby Show reinforces the myth that blacks who don’t “make it” have only themselves to blame. The summary of the book on Jhally’s Web site describes how the show’s “images of the black upper class … hide and distort how most blacks live, thus relieving white viewers of responsibility for such inequalities. Neither blacks nor whites interviewed think clearly about class; thus, our society cannot think clearly about how race and class intersect.”

In an interview, Jhally says that before Cosby, the portrayal of blackness on television was mostly as a problem, as pathology. “What white audiences wanted was a guilt-free interaction around race,” he says, “and that’s what Bill Cosby gave them.”

(It’s interesting, too, to consider this assessment of The Cosby Show in light of Bill Cosby’s ongoing “call-out” campaign, in which he travels the country dismissing the obstacle of systemic racism and preaching the gospel of personal responsibility to the “lower-economic and lower-middle-economic” blacks who “are not holding their end in this deal.”)

Race and class intersected all over the place in this campaign, and yet very few of those intersections were dealt with in any substantial or nuanced way by the press.

Why, for instance, did we only hear about racism among white, working-class voters in the Rust Belt or the South? There is no single answer to that question, but one factor surely is that from the vantage point of the mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class journalists who inhabit our newsrooms, those are among the last bastions of racism in the country. Never mind that the traditional image of the working class—white, male, industrial—has been supplanted by a reality that is heavily female, immigrant, and in service-sector jobs. Never mind, too, that if we were to plunk those journalists down in a housing project in East New York, say, or Chicago’s south side, we would have a very different conversation about racism in America.

In all coverage that discussed Obama’s candidacy as “post-racial,” that noted how he transcended the race-based politics of the civil rights-era black leaders, it was rarely stated overtly that in most every way save skin color, the Obama who appeared on the national stage fit neatly into the perception in middle-class America—journalists included—of who its leaders should be. He went to Columbia and Harvard. He is affluent. He speaks like we do. No matter the uniqueness of his story, he is familiar to us. He is the embodiment of the truth that white, middle-class America—thanks in part to The Cosby Show—has attained a level of comfort with the now-substantial black middle class. But what about poor and working-class blacks? There the story gets a whole lot more complicated.

As always, there were exceptions. The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Kaufman got beneath the surface with a number of pieces he wrote about class in the campaign, including one particularly sharp article that dealt with the class divide in the black community. But as the Cosby Show article reminds us, class still doesn’t register in any broad or meaningful way in our mass media. However uneven and incomplete the conversation in the press was about race during the campaign, it was far more robust and evolved than the conversation about class, which was barely audible.

In fairness, the reporter who wrote the Times story probably had a day to do it and very little space to air out much complexity. But that is at least part of my point: How can we expect reporters who have little or no background with working class people—or poor people, or racial and ethnic minorities—to get beyond one-dimensional portrayals dominated by middle-class stereotypes if they aren’t encouraged to do so by their editors? If they aren’t given the time and the space to overcome their blind spots? Note to Bill Cosby and to Bill Keller: the well-intentioned reporter can only get so far by tugging on his own bootstraps; some institutional and systemic help is in order.

John Russo, who runs the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State, says the resentment of the press among members of the working class is similar to the resentment of politicians. “Every four years they come to get their stories just like the politicians come to get their votes,” he says, “and then they’re gone.” The story of Obama’s victory in many of these “blue-collar hamlets” of Ohio and Pennsylvania says as much about the people there as it does about Obama. If the national media would spend a little more time exploring what happens in these parts of America between presidential campaigns, they might do a better job of explaining them when it comes time to hit the trail again.

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.