09.21.15

The Cosby Conversation We’re Still Not Having

In the 1990s, Bill Cosby changed the conversation about the Black family with the sitcom “The Cosby Show.” A decade after “Good Times” took us into the hard knock inner-city life of the Evans family and “The Jeffersons” had us all “movin’ on up,” the Cosby Show taught us there was a middle-class opening up to African Americans. The show provoked a lot of debate. How “Black” was The Cosby Show? Did Cosby put forth an idealized life beyond the reach of most Black families? Or was it a triumph not only in television but in the lived experience of the growing Black middle class? That was the first “Cosby conversation.”

About two decades later, Cosby made a second splash with his now infamous “Pound Cake Speech” at the May 2004 NAACP awards dinner honoring the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board. In the speech, Cosby contended that some African Americans were not “keeping their part of the bargain.” He pointed at black parenting, lack of responsibility, consumerism and other behaviors as a betrayal of the Civil Rights Movement’s promise. Not surprisingly, Cosby’s comments triggered a firestorm of media and a small cottage industry of books. Marissa Parson Davis authored Bill Cosby Is Right, What Should the Church Be Doing About It? while Michael Eric Dyson questioned Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? A few years later, a number of African-American evangelicals weighed in with Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation. The comedian had successfully launched a second public debate, one in which he made frequent public speeches and enlisted the help of long-time associate Dr. Alvin Poussaint.

With the surfacing of sexual abuse allegations, Cosby should be at the center of another national conversation. Some 41 women alleging abuse covering a 40-year period from 1967-2008 have come forward against the comedian (see here). Many of the alleged assaults involved the women in their teen years and nearly all involved the use of date rape and other drugs. In the wake of the allegations, tour dates have been cancelled and at least three television networks have pulled The Cosby Show from their television lineups.

Predictably, the firestorm raged then cooled. Shock gave way to dismay and anger in some corners. Much has been written and said. But some few months after the allegations broke, there’s hardly any evidence of this third “Cosby conversation” ever happening. We seem to have forgotten the society-wide need to protect our daughters, sisters and wives against the predations of men.

According to the CDC nearly 1 in 5 women experience rape at some time. Nearly 1 in 20 women and men experienced some forced sexual assault other than rape. Thirty-seven percent of female rape victims were raped between the ages of 18-24. Forty-two percent were raped before age 18. Twelve percent of female and 28% of male victims were raped when they were less than 10 years old. The perpetrators tend to be intimate partners (51%), family members (12.5%) and acquaintances (40.8%). According to one estimate, 1.3 women are raped per minute. That’s 78 women per hour, 1,871 per day or 683,000 per year!

Keep in mind these estimates based on a national sample very likely under-report actual incidents since the majority of assaults go unreported. In addition, the statistics don’t capture the physical injuries and deaths suffered during sexual assaults or the increased association with things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), heart problems, depression, and anxiety disorder. Nor do they tell the story of the chronic worry women face in this society, living as many women do with a relentless concern for their safety. It would be difficult to measure the collective vulnerability women face in most societies in the world—including the so-called “developed” countries.

What we are not discussing is how to prevent the many Cosbys in our homes, families, friendship networks, schools and churches from preying upon our daughters, sisters, and mothers. We need a sustained campaign to protect our daughters—when they are kidnapped en masse in foreign nations by groups like Boko Haram and when they are terrorized individually by fathers, step-fathers, uncles, brothers, family friends, employers, and celebrities.

There are many working in the trenches, but comparatively their numbers are few. And I suspect far too few churches lend their voices to this cause. We are complicit in our silence.

We know something about the contexts that militate against sexually predatory behavior. Communities with weak community sanctions against abusive men, with community norms and values supportive of violence, and with a sense of male sexual entitlement are at risk of higher rates of sexual assault against women. The striking thing about these community-level risk factors is that preaching addresses all of them. If it’s one thing parents and pastors habitually do, it’s preach. The messages we send our sons, brothers and fathers determine the sanctions, norms and entitlements they tend to expect. We can significantly impact the safety and well-being of women by breaking our silence, speaking against violence, abuse and sexual entitlement, and insisting on the prosecution of offenders. We must speak up if we ever hope to end this scourge.

In my last post, I mentioned attending the Poets in Autumn Tour. I mentioned how powerful the headliners were, but I neglected to mention just how skillful and moving the opening poets were also. One poem in particular haunts me. I think it’s called, “Who Will Fight for Girls?” It’s a lament for Black girls who have no advocate in so much of society. Sitting a couple seats from my wife and teenage girls, I kept thinking, I will fight. I will fight. I will fight for the black girls in my home, in my community, and around the world.

Let’s fight for them together.

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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