Robert Stacy McCain uses an astonishingly-stupid remark by Katie Couric as a springboard for some great remarks on the value of Bill Cosby’s hit sitcom:
As a professional comedian and actor, of course, Cosby’s first consideration was to produce successful entertainment. Insofar as Cosby had any notion of racial consciousness-raising, however, I’m pretty sure his primary idea was to exemplify a model of bourgeois decency for the black community.
Here was a top-quality program by black people, about black people, for black people — an weekly show that held out to black Americans the same kind of corny old-fashioned middle-class family ideal once emboided by shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver.
The Huxtables weren’t living in the projects and they weren’t speaking ghetto-inflected jive-talk. In fact, although this is sometimes forgotten, many liberals at the time criticized The Cosby Show as inauthentic and insufficiently relevant in addressing Serious Social Problems.
Yet the Huxtable family were about something very different than the kind of didactic issues-based “relevance” beloved by intellectuals. The Huxtables were reflecting the basic American values that Cosby cherishes, values that he dearly wants other black people to embrace, so as to get their own share of the American dream.
The fact that the show instantly became a mass-market success is, first and foremost, a tribute to Bill Cosby’s genius. But that success in itself undermines the idea that white people’s attitudes toward black people were, in 1984, the principle hindrance to black success. If white people were so ignorant and bigoted, why were they tuning in by the millions each week to watch Cosby?
Beyond the comedic brilliance of Cosby himself, some of the best parts of The Cosby Show were his periodic struggles — especially with son Theo — to get his kids to stay on the right path, and not to be lured into the “street” culture by peer pressure or trying to be “cool.”
This was, and remains, a particular problem that black parents have to deal with. Even though all parents have to deal with rebellious teens getting into trouble, the white suburban middle-class parent does not live in a world where the “troubled teen” routinely goes to prison or ends up shot dead. But these possibilities are a serious worry for many black parents. (To quote a black friend, concerned about gang activity in small-town schools: “We got out of the ghetto and we’re not going back. We sure as hell don’t want the ghetto coming here to get us.”)