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Bill Cosby's Legacy Is Tarnished, But Influence Remains


It's not over for Bill Cosby. The district attorney in Montgomery County, Penn., is promising to retry him on sexual assault charges. The first trial ended yesterday in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked on all charges. Mr. Cosby's power is back, said his spokesman, Andrew Wyatt. It's been restored.

Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team maybe has a different take. He joins us from New York. Hiya (ph), Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What reaction have you been seeing? Before we get into what this means for Cosby and his legacy, what are people that you've been following been saying?

DEMBY: The big thing I've seen is that people are trying to figure out just what to do with Bill Cosby. Right? Here is this guy who is the exemplar of a black patriarch, who has been dogged by these horrible, horrible charges - right? - these heinous crimes he is accused of. And so even critiques of him seem to be tempered by this reverence that people have for him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Take us through his cultural importance.

DEMBY: Sure. I mean, at the height of his power - right? - like in the late '80s, early '90s, Bill Cosby, you know, had "The Cosby Show," which was the No. 1 show on TV for the better part of a decade. And, you know, "The Cosby Show" put a black family at the center of America's conception of itself, which is a very big deal. And, you know, "The Cosby Show" also owed no small part of its influence to the fact that black folks considered it - a lot of black folks considered it - that show's success as part of this like larger civic project around race and representation and respectability. You know, a project to which they...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because it wasn't just any black family, it was a black family that was wealthy and affluent and apolitical in some ways.

DEMBY: Yeah. It was a black family that was black and was not sort of hiding their blackness but also a black family that was not prickly. And a lot of people felt like they had certain obligations to that. I mean, just my own life - when I was about 4 or 5, I went to a daycare center. And every Friday morning, the day after "The Cosby Show" aired, we would get quizzed on what happened in the previous night's episode because the women who looked after us felt that it was important for us to watch this show because this was an aspirational model.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He built his career on issues of race in certain ways.

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, the funny thing about Cosby was that race never figures, like, prominently in his comedy necessarily. But it was - it showed up in his career in all sorts of other ways. So like, you know, on "The Cosby Show," he very prominently wore the hoodies and sweatshirts of historically black colleges. He had an anti-apartheid sign in one of the bedrooms on the show. He donated millions of dollars to prestigious historically black colleges.

So Cosby was always a race man. He was always a guy who felt that his work was, in part, to sort of uplift the race - to uplift black people. And so you know, you see this turn in his career - this later part of his career over the last two decades or so in which he becomes, in a lot of ways, black America's most prominent moral scolds. You know, he thought black America had lost its way. And he became much, much more outspoken about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain that. I mean, he was, at a certain point, celebrated by white conservatives.

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, the most famous critique he made was in a speech that's called the poundcake speech, which was on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Cosby sort of said that black America had lost its way. He was really pointed. His - it was - it's actually a borderline incoherent speech.

But in it, the speech gets its name, the poundcake speech, from this line he made - this line in which he says that, you know, the police would not have to kill black men if those black men were not robbing poundcake from the corner store. And so it was a lot of - it was a really pointed and angry speech. And it got both a lot of applause from a certain segment of black America, more conservative black Americans, but also from white conservatives. And it cost him a lot of credibility among younger people as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So then what do you think that all says about where we're at now with Bill Cosby and his legacy?

DEMBY: I mean, a lot of people, you know, have pointed to the fact that the Obamas were made possible by the Huxtables in a lot of ways - that the Huxtables made it possible for black - for white America to conceive of a black family at the center of American life in that way. And so Cosby sort of opened this door. But in doing so, he also made it possible for people to sort of disentangle themselves psychically from, you know, this role he played as, like, this cultural ambassador to the wider world. And part of the - the criticism you see of Cosby today from all corners of black America - in a lot of ways, that's possible because people can disentangle themselves from him because there's less need for there to be collective investment in Cosby's personal story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch. Thank you so much.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.

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