Bill Cosby is back in the news! And as cranky as ever. The Atlantic has a loooooong think piece about Cosby by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who incidentally is one of the only tolerable writers about hip hop ever to work outside of the music press. Coates runs down Cosby's whole history, and his transformation from the friendly black face popular with black and white Americans alike to a latter-day Booker T. Washington whose gruff dismissal of things like, you know, racism, rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But the key lesson of the story: whatever you do, don't ask Bill Cosby about Obama!
The strain of black conservatism that Cosby evokes has also surfaced in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Early on, some commentators speculated that Obama's Cosby-esque appeals to personal responsibility would cost him black votes. But if his admonishments for black kids to turn off the PlayStation and for black fathers to do their jobs did him any damage, it was not reflected at the polls. In fact, this sort of rhetoric amounts to something of a racial double play, allowing Obama and Cosby to cater both to culturally conservative blacks and to whites who are convinced that black America is a bastion of decadence. (Curiously, Cosby is noncommittal verging on prickly when it comes to Obama. When Larry King asked him whether he supported Obama, he bristled: "Do you ask white people this question? ... I want to know why this fellow especially is brought up in such a special way. How many Americans in the media really take him seriously, or do they look at him like some prize brown baby?" The exchange ended with Cosby professing admiration for Dennis Kucinich. Months later, he rebuffed my requests for his views on Obama's candidacy.)