Thoughts on Cosby, Mike Brown, and Respectability

I haven’t got much to say. Much that makes any sense, anyway.

I keep looking for words that will make sense. Or make things make sense. I have yet to find them. What I have instead is the following.

Back in February, while researching the dynamics of the politics of respectability for their applicability to the situation of white women and women and men of color in the discipline of philosophy, I discovered a story that Bill Cosby had been accused of sexual assault. In fact he was accused of serial rape: at least thirteen women were prepared to testify in the suit Andrea Constand brought against Cosby in 2006 that he had drugged and assaulted them in the same manner as Constand in 2004. In the last six weeks, several more women have come forward telling similar tales, 18 so far, stretching from the late 1960s to the mid 2000s.

A child of the 80s, I didn’t grow up watching episodes of the Jeffersons or Good Times or Sanford and Son. Black life on TV was the Cosby show, followed by the spinoff A Different World, which followed Denise Huxtable as she went to college. The Huxtables’ lives were, as the kids say, ‘relatable’ – it reflected the kind of aspirational upper-middle class life that bouied much of middle america as we watched other people enjoy the rising tide of the 80s.

That the Cosby show, along with Cosby’s humor itself, made black life relatable to whites is a testament both to his skill as a comic and to the white desire for an alibi. As Mervan Osborne said in the New York Times, “There was a time when white people used to claim, ‘I watch “Cosby” ’ as their bona fides.’”

That desire for an alibi renders racism a matter of what’s in your head, a place that conveniently can never be accessed, while you complain that, despite your live of hip hop, you are forbidden as a white person from using “the n-word.” It leads to the requirement that the NAACP denounce black-on-black crime, while expressing their hope that an agent of the state will be held accountable for the murder of an unarmed 18 year old. It leads to the belief that state violence against black people can be prevented by just being better people – presumably, being more like Cosby himself.

This is where the logic of respectability politics takes you. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his excellent mea cupla (for failure to adequately report on the accusations of rape in his piece on Cosby) in the Atlantic, reminds us that “[o]rganic black conservatives (like Cosby, for instance) are traditionalists, but they hold no such illusions about America’s past. They believe this country to be racist, perhaps irredeemably so, but assert nonetheless that individual effort can defeat trenchant racism. The organic black conservative vision is riding high at the moment… The author of this moment is Bill Cosby.”

Bill Cosby’s first performance in the aftermath of this latest, much stickier round of allegations took place in Melbourne Florida in front of an “almost exclusively white” audience. A reporter for LA Times interviewed members of the audience: “‘I think what you have is a lot of people on the left who don’t like him,’ said Ray Harker, a white resident of the nearby town of Grant who owns an air conditioning and heating business there. Harker came out to the show with his wife, Eleanora, who nodded in agreement with much of what her husband said. ‘They don’t like what [Cosby] says about black people taking more responsibility, and this is their chance to beat up on him,’ Harker added.”

I would like to hold open a space between what Coates calls organic black conservatism and the white desire for an alibi. To say that the latter determines the former is certainly much too reductive, and has the effect of reifying all black politics as a merely effect of white supremacy. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the politics of respectability unites both sides into a single logic. It is a logic of inclusion, a way of making a claim to citizenship on the terms of citizenship as already established. And to that extent, it works: inclusion can be gained, can be bought with success, can be achieved if you are twice as good, if you are never weak or never fail, if you are never marked by the phenomenon of error, that which is said to make us human. You can achieve inclusion, by being something more than human.

I began writing this piece while waiting for the indictment of officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was murdered for appearing to be something more than human: according to Wilson’s testimony to the grand jury, after already having been shot, Brown fought with Wilson for control of the gun like “Hulk Hogan” and “bulked up” in order to run into more bullets; according to Wilson, “it”s face appeared to resemble a demon.

I argued last winter that while the politics of respectability might be a reasonable response to liberalism, it re-produced another set of constitutively excluded others, and that those who could not be included under the old paradigm – the poor, the queer – found out that they were on their own. What are the costs of respectability? Who is required to pay it?

Last week, when Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed regret for not doing more reporting on accusations of rape against Cosby, writer Ishmael Reed accused Coates on Facebook of joining a lynch mob. Reed said that, given his identity as a black man, he was loathe to join a lynch mob since he himself would be most vulnerable to it. Novelist and Vassar professor Kiese Laymon pointed out the logic at work here: Reed is willing to think of 18 women as liars because he might himself be accused of assault one day. Perhaps it would not even be necessary that they be liars. All that is necessary is that the overwhelming actuality of sexual assault not matter as much as the slimmest possibility that Ishmael Reed be someday accused of it.

Today, in a breathtaking piece, Kiese Laymon wrote the following:

My Vassar College Faculty ID affords me free smoothies, free printing paper, paid leave, and access to one of the most beautiful libraries on Earth. It guarantees that I have really good health care and more disposable income than anyone in my Mississippi family. But way more than I want to admit, I’m wondering what price we pay for these kinds of ID’s, and what that price has to do with the extrajudicial disciplining and killing of young black human beings.

Is the price of respectability politics Cosby’s ability to rape 18 women with impunity?

How respectable could Mike Brown have been in order to survive?

What is the price of white desire for an alibi?