INDIANAPOLIS –- The four of us, all black men, watched in stunned silence as the news unfurled across the barber shop’s television screen: a jury in Pennsylvania had found Bill Cosby guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman at his home.
Finally, my barber broke the silence:
I hope they serve pound cake in jail.”
The room erupted in knowing laughter at the reference to Cosby’s 2004 speech to the NAACP, and the delicious misfortune of an unrepentant Uncle Tom who had cynically scolded the black poor and working class that continues to be terrorized by white supremacy and monopoly capitalism 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation:
People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? . . . Ladies and gentlemen, in our cities and public schools we have 50 percent drop out. In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.”
Whether the 80-year-old Cosby spends so much as a day in jail remains to be seen, and I, for one, would bet against it. And it’s true that no insignificant number of African-Americans continue to support the “Cos” and believe in no uncertain terms that he was framed by a cabal of women and a racist criminal justice system that wanted to see America’s Dad fall, and fall hard.
But there is also no shortage of blacks — mostly those who either are working class or identify with that cohort — who today are basking in the afterglow of a race traitor getting his comeuppance for trafficking in the worst Amos-n-Andy racial tropes.
“I’m fresh out of fucks to give,” said another barber, 47-year-old Damon, as the comedian appeared on the TV screen. “OJ didn’t have no love for black folks either, but at least he didn’t go around bad-mouthing us to impress a bunch of bougie [bourgeoisie] blacks and white folks.”
Flip through your photo album of black respectability politics and you’ll find Bill Cosby somewhere, either in the background or foreground. There he is playing a spy when the FBI was destroying the radical black power movement by any means necessary; there he is sucker-punching Tommy Smothers who chided him, justifiably, for apolitical monologues while America’s inner cities and Vietnam’s jungles burned; and who can forget the Cosby Show’s none-too-subtle exhortation for blacks to retire their anger and their resistance movements in the Reagan era in exchange for a few trinkets and designer sweaters?
Said another black comedian, Hannibal Buress, during an October 2014 performance at the Trocadero, a theater in Cosby’s hometown of Philadelphia:
Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man persona that I hate, He gets on TV, ‘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 rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”
As any comedian knows, timing is everything, and Cosby’s was always bad. His “pound cake” speech was delivered the same year that Andrea Constand, whom Cosby was convicted of assaulting on Thursday, said that he drugged and sexually assaulted her at his suburban Philadelphia home. At the same time, unscrupulous mortgage bankers were kicking into overdrive a campaign to sell predatory loans to black homeowners, or “mud people,” as some lenders described them.
And in 2006, voters in Illinois would elect as their U.S. Senator one Barack Hussein Obama, who would, of course, go on to become the king of black respectability politics, scolding blacks for everything from their consumption of Popeye’s chicken to their criminality, while shoveling billions of dollars at the same bankers who had swindled them out of their life savings and their homes. By the time Obama left the White House, the number of women accusing the Cos of sexual assault would grow to more than 50.
Cosby’s pound cake speech, however, was a thunderclap moment in American racial politics in which many were forced to pick sides. Said one 31-year old-New Yorker of Irish and Italian heritage:
What I remember most about it was the people in my family and neighborhood who already had the shittiest opinions of Black people saw it as a moment of validation and license. It was an ‘even their top member is admitting this now’ kind of moment.”
Class tensions within the black community have always been potent: many African-Americans who took to the streets to participate in riots during in the 1960s told the government’s Commission on Civil Disorders, headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, that they held middle-class blacks in contempt every bit as much as whites.
But Cosby is a commissioned officer in a widening global class war, a conflict that increasingly recognizes neither race nor geography nor traditional alliances. What fuels this shift is the evolution of a modern post-industrial elite of politicians, corporate executives, journalists, and celebrities who have more in common with one another than they do with the tribes or communities that raised them. The story of 21st century monopoly capitalism is a Shakespearean drama of betrayal that stretches from South Central LA to South Africa, and from Argentina to Zimbabwe.
In 2006 I interviewed a black community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, Hal Baskin, who was leading an effort to get construction jobs for African-Americans and Latinos who had been largely shut out of the city’s building boom. He said:
These ministers are too busy trying to cozy up to the mayor. And then you got people like Bill Cosby saying this nonsense about poor people misbehaving. When you’re that high, you really can’t see low. They’re not bad people but they’re addressing their own, and they have a different agenda than most of the people who live in [Chicago’s slums]. And this is why all the young people turn to the rappers for leadership; they’re the only ones talking about their reality, not these politicians, these celebrities and these middle-class Negroes.”
Top Photo | Bill Cosby speaks to students during at a tribute marking the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education at Riverside Church in Manhattan, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 2, 2004. Cosby got serious with 500 ninth-graders at a talk commemorating the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”