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
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.