Hannibal Rising

Two months ago I faulted Bill Cosby for his 2004 “Pound Cake” speech condemning what he saw as the dynamics of dysfunction in black America; I argued that Cosby’s words gave right-wing reactionaries permission to rationalize police brutality against African-Americans.

I never realized just how much Cosby’s 2004 speech ticked people off:

Stand-up comic Hannibal Buress tore into Bill Cosby during a recent performance in Philadelphia, saying the TV icon should not criticize the behavior of black people, given that a number of women who have brought allegations of sexual abuse against him.

A video of the performance, first posted by Philadelphia magazine, has been picked by numerous websites.

“Bill Cosby has the (expletive) smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” Buress said in his set. “‘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, but you [allegedly] raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches.”

It must be noted that Cosby has never been charged with any crime. However, the decision by Burress to bring these allegations back into the public spotlight raises a number of thorny issues, as Massachusetts columnist Ron Chimelis observes:

Buress seemed surprised by the outcry that followed. He went on Howard Stern’s show to defend his comments, saying he’d been doing the routine for months and that “I just read some stuff and researched. Anybody can get that information.”

Welcome to modern society, where anybody can “just read some stuff” and call a man a rapist in a comedy bit. And Buress’ explosive statement is not backed up by any legal result.

In 2006, Cosby settled out of court with a woman who claimed he had sexually assaulted her. Court documents indicated the woman’s lawyers were prepared to bring 13 women who had similar allegations.

Celebrities settle scandalous cases out of court for several reasons. Some are guilty. Others don’t want a ruinous, prolonged public court battle that will leave indelible scars, even if they are exonerated.

Buress’ statement presumes the absolute worst. Whether Cosby lets this die down or responds – either vebally or legally – remains to be seen.

“Just reading stuff,” however, puts the headline potential of this story in perspective. A media outlet known as Vulture recently produced a timeline of Cosby abuse allegations involving several women and dating back to the 1970s.

Mixed within the outrage at Buress is this question: why, as Hess asked, hasn’t Cosby paid more of a public price for the scandal, at least until now?

Rightly or otherwise, the public does not normally wait for proof before judging. Yet Cosby’s image, while roughed up to some degree, remained largely unscarred – especially considering the nature of the accusations.

I was a teenager when Anita Hill first went public with her sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas, and I remember thinking at the time that I hoped the allegations weren’t true, because it would further the worst stereotypes about African-American men. If a well-educated black judge poised to sit on the highest court in the land turned out to be a sex-obsessed lecher, it would surely cause those who believed that all black men were sex-crazed deviants to hold on tighter to their twisted views.

Over two decades later, I find myself reacting the same way to these allegations against Cosby, which I had never heard of prior to the Buress controversy. I really hope he didn’t do it. What will the bigots think if he did?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.