The Troubling Costs of Protecting Bill Cosby's Legacy

Lindsey Kiah Norward, New York University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

We grew up with him. I grew up with him. Through the years, black children were told that strengthening positive black representation is important to combating racism. Now, how would I tell a little black girl that convicting a predator is less important than protecting a false image?

Bill Cosby is battling for innocence. Less than two weeks since his sentencing, the disgraced, former television star’s lawyers are asking for his conviction and three- to ten-year sentence to be overturned.

In the wake of this battle is another question: Could his legacy also return?

America watched as Bill Cosby was led away in handcuffs on September 25th to a Pennsylvania prison, sentenced three- to ten-years for sexual assault. After decades of fruitless allegations, a critical moment arose in the #MeToo movement--a powerful media figure was finally held accountable for his illegal and immoral actions. I watched with the rest of the country as America’s beloved TV dad was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, one accuser out of over sixty other women who came forward.

I still remember Saturday mornings growing up—in a crowded living room, in a hair salon, in a church—when I and other black people would crowd around a television, watching reruns of The Cosby Show. I still remember my parents telling me how important the show was for positive black imagery in mainstream media. Black television has long been in a different vehicle than white television--not simply to entertain, but to combat stereotypes. Since slavery, the majority of black imagery has been used to demonize black individuals and justify harsh and inhumane treatment endured through generations. Shows like Family Matters, The Cosby Show, and The Jeffersons acted to reclaim a tainted history. Yet somewhere along the way, protecting an image became more important to many people than protecting the lives of those these images were meant to represent.  I can’t help but to wonder, then, what I would tell a little black girl today about The Cosby Show. Would I defend what Cosby once represented, or would I demand accountability for his criminal actions?

To me, the answer to this question has value. Cosby’s fans-turned-defenders have used his legacy in black television to defend him, referring to his sentence as a breach of black humanity. Others chose to compare their mourning Cosby’s tainted legacy to the trauma his victims endured. I see black men and women particularly of my parents’ generation monumentalizing Cosby’s legacy. There are those that say Cosby’s accusers waited too long to make reports, or that they shouldn’t have taken the drugs he gave them. There are those accusing Constand of only wanting money, or irrelevantly insulting her physical appearance. There are conspiracies about media corporations like NBC plotting against him because he wanted to buy the company. Most recently, commentary juxtaposes white public figures like Harvey Weinstein and Brett Kavanaugh with Cosby as a victim of a racist criminal justice system. As disappointing as Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court is, society is holding him individually accountable for his actions. In reality, the only racial disparity lies in placing these other men as individuals while placing Bill Cosby as a collective black representative. Ironically, Bill Cosby has failed to do exactly what his conservative “Pound Cake” rhetoric advocated for--holding his own actions accountable.

I can't shake the fact that choosing between justice for survivors of sexual assault and a false image is a contradiction. I acknowledge that Cosby did a lot of good—for mainstream black media representation, for black philanthropy, and for black education. But I think we deserve better black icons than one who is also a serial rapist--and we have plenty of these actual role models. I find myself perplexed at how the very deceptive image that led victims--including black women--to stay silent for years at a time, is being used to further silence them.  For centuries, black and brown women’s stories have been decentered--perpetuating rape culture affects them, too. Women of color are less likely to report sexual assault, especially in domestic predicaments in which sexual violence affects them the most. Telling a girl or woman that she needs to defend a man’s image despite his being a sex offender, is a sanction of violence. Victims of sexual assault deserve to know that their safety is more important than an image.

Black girls should feel protected. Black women should feel protected. Black men should feel protected. Even if Cosby’s race made him more vulnerable to the criminal justice system, falsifying Cosby’s character does not provide protection. It doesn’t rectify any past racial injustices, either. It’s only further doing a disservice to the innocent black men, women, and children who the system unjustly disenfranchises. We can’t perpetuate this violent type of rape culture simply to protect a false image, a black man or otherwise. Our history is stronger than Cosby’s legacy.

Instead, we can learn from this moment. Today, I would teach a little black child a different lesson--one of the importance of individual accountability. Positive black representation must be just that--positive. Cosby's sentence is not a product of racism--it is a product of his own doing. However, our perception of him as a good father, role model, and icon despite his being a rapist, is a symptom of racism. It is the aftermath of feeling the need to combat racist stereotypes of black people, so holding on to a deceptive image at any cost. At the end of the day, protecting Cosby’s image isn’t protecting the black community. We’re protecting an image white America marketed negative imagery to us for centuries. It’s time to hold predators in the black community accountable as individuals, without disrespecting and disempowering their victims. The disturbing nature of continuing to use Cosby’s race to justify his actions is inexcusable. I would teach a little black girl about survivors’ strength, how powerful it is for a woman to speak up, regardless of the ramifications.

The defense claims used to protect Bill Cosby’s legacy aren’t redressing past injustice, or protecting against present or future injustice. All they are doing is playing to respectability politics in media, and protecting the multimillionaire who used this respectable image to terrorize dozens of women. While positive black representation is important, it shouldn’t be enough to exonerate black figures who commit terrible crimes. There is a liberation in viewing Cosby as an individual — just because white America has used negative black imagery as a way to demonize our community, doesn’t mean we have to immortalize a false character.

Cosby can’t hide behind his image, and we shouldn’t want him to.