Burning cars, looted stores, reporters in gas masks. And hundreds of newspaper commentaries on long-standing racism in American society. At the same time as all the fuss evoked by the Ferguson affair, other dramas have also been playing out in the U.S. Much more subtle ones, but also on the theme of visible and persistently painful racial scars.
Dad, this is embarrassing …
It wasn’t a good idea on Obama’s part when he took his daughters, 16-year-old Malia and 13-year-old Sasha, in front of the television cameras at the White House last Wednesday. Most of the time he tries to keep them out of the public eye. This time it apparently occurred to Obama that children somehow belong to the traditional ceremony, when the U.S. president pardons one or two turkeys before Thanksgiving. Hey, it’s cute.
Only he forgot that Malia and Sasha are no longer children. The young Obama ladies’ body language clearly signaled what they thought and felt about the whole matter: “For God’s sake, Dad, this is embarrassing … I want to get out of here.” Crossed legs, a disdainful expression on their faces. Give me a break! Anyone who has a teenager at home knows exactly what it’s about, that you cannot, must not, fight it — every reaction only evokes more defiance.
Elizabeth Lauten, until this Monday a staffer of Republican congressman Stephen Lee Fincher, has no children at home, and so committed the unbelievable (pardon me) stupidity of scolding the girls on Facebook. “Show a little class. Rise to the occasion. Act like being in the White House matters to you. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar.”
Lauten violated a taboo that one does not sniff around in the business of the children of sitting American presidents. At that point, she could hardly have survived; the racial overtone of the whole affair contributed substantially to her forced resignation.
Here, the white woman lashed out against black girls who are also proof to the world of what a long road African-Americans have travelled since the era of segregation. Why would anyone dare to demean them today? Black Washington Post columnist Mary C. Curtis spoke for many when she wrote, “[It’s] insidious. And it’s nothing new. Lauten’s mind traveled back to a disgusting place and time, when black women were disrespected, denied a spot on the pedestal of virtue white women occupied. Those views [are still] apparently alive and well.”
Curtis then linked this incident with Ferguson. In her view it attests to the same problem behind the shooting of the 18-year-old Michael Brown. In the U.S., black children apparently are viewed differently from the white minority. The “racial” view toward young blacks doesn’t even allow them to be children. It makes “demons” of them, as in the case of Michael Brown, or it unjustly lowers their status, as in the case of Malia and Sasha.
Does that seem to be forcing the case? Maybe from an outside perspective, but not so much from inside American society. It doesn’t matter one bit if you don’t feel anything of the sort reading Liz Lauten’s inculpating Facebook message. In a segment of American public discourse, it is simply there.
Curtis was far from the only one who found latent racism in Lauten’s opinion. She certainly addressed it very openly. Lauten’s view is afflicted by “historical baggage” and stereotypes of “bad mothers and welfare queens.” In principle, it’s the same issue that we’re observing in Ferguson. Part of society fervently disagrees that racism has anything to do with it. Only another part of that same U.S. is decisively convinced of the opposite.
Cut the Comedy
It was first discussed publicly in 2006, when the famous African-American comedian Bill Cosby concluded an out-of-court settlement with a woman who had accused him of rape the year before. Cosby, who until then had presented himself as a model husband and father, admitted at the time that he had not been entirely faithful to his wife Camille over the course of their marriage. But he denied all the accusations — that he also forced sex during his frequent philandering, sometimes with the use of intoxicants — which continued to grow from that time forward. And America believed him.
Even this September, a huge biography of Cosby came out, a detailed 500-page book by former Newsweek correspondent Mark Whitaker; Cosby: His Life and Times, which passed over any doubts regarding the allegations raised. Now suddenly, literally in the last two or three weeks, everything has come crashing down dramatically.
One after the other, television companies which had planned new programs with Cosby — or wanted to carry reruns of old ones — are distancing themselves from him. Celebrities for whom he had long been a model are renouncing him; journalists who had conducted famous interviews with Cosby for years are turning on him.
TV hosts like David Letterman and Queen Latifah suddenly don’t want the comedian as a guest on their shows. Colleges where he got honorary doctorates are pondering the possibility of taking them away. Foundations to which he has made financial contributions won’t take even a dollar from him anymore. People at Washington’s venerable Smithsonian National Museum of African Art are wracking their brains out over how to handle an exhibition consisting entirely of an art collection donated by Bill Cosby which opened barely a couple of weeks ago.
But why just now, barely 10 years since the first public accusation? Does Ferguson have something to do with it? It would be technically possible to answer, as some journalists are attempting when they point to the fact that in an age of social media it had to come someday, and that the initial explosion was a viral video less than a month ago, in which black comedian Hannibal Burres made fun of Cosby’s sexual escapades.
But the truth is that America has not wanted to see the real Cosby for a long time, has feared the end of one great, beautiful myth. It didn’t want to wake up from the fairy tale about the great “American dad” of blacks and whites, who showed the first group the way to success and equal rights, and offered the second a clean conscience, that they do what they can to help America behave in a racially just manner.
I will take away your guilt …
The now 77-year-old Cosby has not been “just” some comedian. He was the first black man to break through to the top of American show business. In the mid-1960s, NBC cast him in the first leading sitcom role for a black man, in the series I Spy, a parody on Bond flicks. Cosby received three consecutive Emmys.
His own sitcom The Cosby Show achieved much greater success from 1984 to 1992. The series about the black middle class family of Dr. Cliff Huxtable, who with his wife Clair raises five children, became a social phenomenon. It wasn’t just a humorous TV program, it was an image of America, which America itself would like to have been. An America where a black father instills in his children the idea that with education and work the American dream is just as achievable for them as for anyone else — black or white. For African-American viewers, Cosby was a beacon and a model, and for whites he took away any sense of guilt for the potential enduring scars of slavery and lingering racism.
Cosby carried this “gospel” over into his civic life as well; in the past 15 years he has publicly stood out as a moralist of the black community. He has emphasized the importance of the traditional family and challenged blacks to — before they start complaining — take their lives, work, children and civic duties into their own hands.
Black and white America listened to him; he became the voice and conscience of a society that wanted to believe that a “post-racial” America was possible and that Cosby himself was living proof. In 2002 George Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And when Barack Obama was elected to the White House in 2008, it was written that this very Cosby was one of the ones who had paved his way. Did it all have to come tumbling down over unsubstantiated accusations of rape? Because of incidents, moreover, that were mostly 15 to 20 years old, when they weren’t taken so seriously before?
Perhaps the fairy tale could have lasted some time longer, perhaps it never would have ended, but Ferguson shattered it. As frequently happens, at dramatic moments the masks came off, and things could be seen for what they really were. “I’d be curious to know what Cosby would have said of Michael Brown,” wonders black commentator Kelley Carter on the news site BuzzFeed, speaking for many others. “Cosby — and his character, Dr. Huxtable — represented that Safe Black,” she writes about the idea that Cosby inspired blacks and reassured whites.
Now it’s all gone. Perhaps Dr. Huxtable remains, as Carter writes, but only as a fictional character, not as a living person of flesh and bones. And that “post-racial” dream remains for now really just a dream.
Such a “normal” family
NBC aired The Cosby Show from 1984 to 1992 and it became one of the most successful American programs of its genre. The tremendous viewer response to the stories of the fictional Huxtable family from Brooklyn was due not just to its funny scripting and good acting, but also to the sitcom’s central character, comedian Bill Cosby, who played the father and obstetrician Cliff Huxtable, presenting America with the image of a functional black family from the upper middle class. For black viewers, Cosby became an example of possible success in life and career; for whites he was proof that they no longer had to feel guilty about the scars of slavery and persistent racism. But it was a fiction, as demonstrated by the racially tinged discussion evoked in recent days by criticism of the behavior and dress of Obama’s daughters.