By Rebecca Traister
But in addition to what it had, there was what “The Cosby Show” lacked: Any suggestion that white people were culpable in the history of racism that the show addressed mostly through reference to mid-twentieth-century activism. White audiences were never made to feel bad about themselves or confront any hard questions about how they had benefitted from American systems from which black Americans had not benefitted. White fans never were forced to wrestle with the question of what made this brownstone-dwelling African American family so exceptional. Rather, we were consciously invited to consider them a new normal. It was its own purposeful message, and not inherently a bad one. But it did permit white Americans to buy into one of their fondest (and falsest) wishes: to consider the sins of the past as past and believe that true racial parity was not only possible but perhaps upon us.
In 1992, researchers Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis wrote a book, Enlightened Racism. After researching audience reaction, they argued that “The Cosby Show,” while ushering in “an era in which white audiences can accept TV programs with more than just an occasional ‘token’ black character,” was also part of a television culture “directly culpable for providing an endless slew of apocryphal stories that sustain a cultural refusal to deal with class inequalities and the racial character of those inequalities.”
These themes of Cosby’s work would become more explicit a decade after “The Cosby Show” went off the air, when the comedian embarked on a speaking tour in which he told black audiences that the kinds of hardships they faced were of their own making, that high rates of poverty, drug use and incarceration had nothing to do with policy or policing practices, but rather with failures of black culture and black parents. “Systemic racism, they call it,” Cosby said derisively, “it’s not what [the white man]’s doing to you; it’s what you’re not doing.”