Long before a jury began deliberating Bill Cosby’s fate in a sexual assault case, a large swath of the black community had already found him guilty of forgetting where he came from.
For a people who spent centuries fighting the scourge of racism, there is no greater hero than one who has risen above our collective circumstance. Bill Cosby fit that mold, and he was therefore revered.
But some in the black community require heroes to remain silent on the black community’s foibles.Those who don’t are quickly labeled sellouts, and they sometimes leave the community for greener pastures. When they’re in trouble, however, they routinely come back, seeking the community’s support.
Cosby, who is accused of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in his Cheltenham home in 2004, could face a decade in prison if he is found guilty. His team has repeatedly brought up the racial aspect of his case—Cosby is black, his accuser is white. In general, older blacks seem willing to back Cosby in those assertions. Black millennials are not so ready to do so.
In some ways, it’s hard to blame our young people for abandoning Cosby. After all, the comedian admonished young black men to pull their pants up, criticized poor black parents for the profane public behavior of their children, and did so in a very public way. The rebukes left many young blacks feeling that Cosby had abandoned them. And now, when Cosby is at his lowest, many young blacks feel no obligation to support him.
Young blacks are certainly within their rights to do so. But while we can afford to disagree vociferously on the fate of Bill Cosby, blacks can’t afford to do so on much else.
At a time when black people are being shot down in the streets, when our schools are being defunded, and when the upper echelons of our government seem openly hostile to the fight for black equality, we can’t allow our differences of opinion to divide us.
If we do, it won’t make a difference what Cosby or anyone else says about us, because black lives will no longer matter.
It’s odd that Bill Cosby has brought us to this moment. None of us, young or old, expected that Cosby would be the one to reveal the generational schism in the black community. For so long, he was a symbol of all that united us.
But now the comedian who came out of the Richard Allen Housing projects in North Philadelphia is the embodiment of all that divides us.
And the irony is that it was a young black man, comedian Hannibal Buress, now 34, who made the joke that put the Bill Cosby rape accusations back into the public sphere.
“ … Bill Cosby has the f—ing smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” Buress said at a Philadelphia comedy club in 2014. “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 raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches. ‘I don’t curse on stage.’ Well, yeah, you’re a rapist, so … I’ll take you sayin’ lots of mother——s on Bill Cosby: Himself if you weren’t a rapist.”
The joke went viral on social media, and the Cosby accusations were back in the news, back in our consciousness, back in the midst of the generational divide that separates black Americans not only by age, but also by viewpoint.
I’ve heard that divide on full display on the radio show I host on WURD Radio in Philadelphia, where older callers such as Sarah from North Philly denounce Cosby’s accusers as gold diggers who knew what they were getting into when they went home with a married man and took pills that Cosby provided them.
Younger callers, such as Wes from Mount Airy, have a different take.
“Bill Cosby,” Wes said in a call to my show. “It’s a sad situation. But I find the irony of it when Bill Cosby was walking around telling young black men to keep — pull they pants up — but it’s him not keeping his pants up that’s got him in this situation. And for me the biggest problem that I have with Bill Cosby, I get tired of black people who become famous who [turn] their back on the community or admonish the community because they weren’t successful, but then once they get in trouble, they run back to the community, and then the community every time with open arms sits there and [backs] that person.”
Perhaps it’s time for the black community to go beyond talking about Bill Cosby. His fate is his alone.
But if we don’t begin to listen to one another across our generational divide, our collective fate will be uglier than we know.
We can’t allow that to happen.
Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).