Bill Cosby’s “Moment”

It’s rather hard to miss the harsh new light being shown on one of America’s long-time cultural icons, Bill Cosby, as credible rape allegations against him add up. But by far the most fascinating look at him in this new light is from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes an apology for failing to think and write enough about those allegations when he was focusing on Cosby in a big Atlantic piece back in 2008. Putting aside the rape allegations (as he did then), this could be Bill Cosby’s big moment:

I spent parts of 2006 and 2007 following Bill Cosby around the country. He was then in the midst of giving a series of “call-outs” in which he upbraided the decline of morality in the black community. Our current organic black conservative moment largely springs from these efforts. It’s worth distinguishing an “organic black conservative” from a black or white Republican moment. Black Republicans, with some exception, don’t simply exist as people who believe in free markets and oppose abortion, but to assure white Republicans that racism no longer exists. Organic black conservatives (like Cosby, for instance) are traditionalists, but they hold no such illusions about America’s past. They believe this country to be racist, perhaps irredeemably so, but assert nonetheless that individual effort can defeat trenchant racism. The organic black conservative vision is riding high at the moment. Thus even the NAACP cannot denounce the outriders of Ferguson without the requisite indictment of “black on black crime.”

The author of this moment is Bill Cosby. In 2004, he gave his “Poundcake Speech,” declaring black youth morally unworthy of their very heritage. Cosby followed the speech with a series of call-outs. I observed several of these call-outs. Again, unlike typical black Republicans, Cosby spoke directly to black people. He did not go on Fox News to complain about the threat of the New Black Panther Party. He did not pen columns insisting the black family was better off under slavery. He was not speaking as a man sent to assure a group that racism did not exist, but as a man who sincerely believed that black people, through the ethic of “twice as good,” could overcome. That is the core of respectability politics. Its appeal is broad in both black and white America, and everywhere Cosby went he was greeted with rapturous applause.

Coates goes on to question himself for failing to pay attention to the evidence that Cosby’s moralizing was deeply ironic. But that was part of the problem: nothing about Cosby squared with the horrific nightmare of a serial rapist–other than the testimony of an awful lot of women who kept being ignored.

Everything about this piece makes it worthwhile to read. You’d have to be familiar with contemporary American journalism and its insane levels of insecurity to understand how Ta-Nehisi Coates ever had trouble holding down a writing job.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.