Thursday, December 31, 2015

Was Bill Cosby's Perp Walk Necessary?

This event was probably inevitable, but it was also probably very, very unhelpful
Yesterday’s much-heralded arrest and arraignment of Bill Cosby hopefully represents the beginning of closure for the women Cosby allegedly assaulted. But it probably represents a brief intermission in America’s media circus surrounding his trials. And just as good playwrights lead into act breaks with emotional cliffhangers, this interlude begins with images guaranteed to drag audiences back. Ushered past celebrity-chasing photojournalists by a studiously mixed-race police pair, Cosby looked every one of his 78 long years.

He also looked exactly like a stereotypical Black man getting his perp walk. With cameras packed as tightly as any Oscar Night red carpet, police shuffled Cosby within grabbing distance of ambiguously adoring crowds. Importantly, police pulled Cosby through the front door of the courthouse, an indignity not forced upon George Zimmerman or Officer Darren Wilson. About the only way yesterday’s arrest circus could’ve been more stereotyped, was if police made Cosby wear a hoodie.

Journalists have penned numerous think pieces regarding Cosby’s highly public disintegration. Will Cosby be remembered, they wonder, as a sexual predator or a comedian? Will these allegations, most outside the statute of limitations, undo Cosby’s history of fighting for African-American rights and justice? These articles have struggled to remain studiously fair to both sides; but the accompanying photographs have inevitably shown a Black man, framed head-and-shoulders by the camera, looking exactly like a mug shot.

Progressives have treated Cosby pretty badly. Wake Forest professor Melissa Harris-Perry, speaking from Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC pulpit, used Cosby’s arrest to conflate virtually everything the former America’s Favorite Dad has ever done to irritate African-American activists. And that list isn’t small. The circumstances surrounding Cosby’s arrest, which dominated half the Maddow show yesterday, opened a spigot of hardly-repressed wrath, letting Harris-Perry reprimand a massive portmanteau of social issues. Most were unrelated to the pending allegations.

Despite his contributions to resisting racial injustice, Cosby has long irked certain quarters with his “Politics of Respectability.” This although the underlying principle is one professors frequently preach to students: To Get Taken Seriously, Act Like Someone Worth Taking Seriously. Cosby has preached that African-Americans, especially young men, should avoid comporting themselves according to racial stereotypes, like saggy britches and slang. Harris-Perry, and other Black activists, have taken issue with what they consider Cosby’s assimilationism.

Nevertheless, this principle informed Cosby’s quite-long career. He took pride in ensuring his I Spy character, Alexander Scott, got presented as smart, well-spoken, and fatherly. This contrasted with then-current stereotypes in Shaft, Superfly, and other dubious blaxploitation classics. (Cosby reputedly took offence at the 2002 I Spy movie, where Eddie Murphy played a semi-literate, philandering goofball.) Cosby also guaranteed his characters in The Bill Cosby Show and The Cosby Show be clean-cut professionals with families.

This issue found itself on egregious display yesterday. Despite his button-down cardigan and varnished bamboo cane, Cosby, marched before the assembled multitudes, looked distinctly rumpled and disreputable. Were anybody from Central Casting seeking a stereotypical Creepy Neighborhood Pervert, yesterday’s footage would certainly find itself in the B-roll folder. Cosby looked scruffy, the shambling image of sexual indecency. Even if, like Michael Jackson, Cosby finds himself legally exonerated, yesterday’s images will cast a long shadow retrospectively.

Cosby’s long, lingering public disintegration has become, for America’s political Left, what Donald Trump has been for the political Right: an opportunity to vent its id publicly. Despite his demi-liberal politics, Cosby has always personally been essentially conservative, a reality that challenges the alliance between African-American leaders and the Democratic party. The lingering current of discontent between organized Black leadership in America and Bill Cosby, is finally getting the public viewing it so desperately deserves.

Bill Cosby now joins the list of public personalities whose sexual violence has become public property after their careers are essentially over. Some, like Jimmy Savile and John Howard Yoder, didn’t get exposed until after their deaths. Few have been treated badly: Savile’s name got quietly removed from his philanthropic contributions, while Yoder still retains a sizeable army of public apologists. For comparison to Cosby’s treatment, one would have to go back to Michael Jackson.

When members of disempowered minorities get busted, their failings cast shadows on their groups. Barack Obama doesn’t get judged as President or a Democrat; he’s America’s First Black President. Now Cosby has been turned into a stereotypical Black predator for the cameras. It’s hard to separate the bad treatment he’s receiving, which even banksters and convicted politicians don’t receive, from his race. And it’s hard to separate his race from our attitudes as a nation.

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