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

C’mon Up!

  • Julian H

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Ronald Wagogo

    Sigh… thanks for the gut check brother.

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  • tangleword

    Will you fight for the children but not standing up at T4G with CJ Mahaney who presided over churches that covered up sexual abuse? Whose own brother-in-law testified in court that they did not tell the authorities about a sexual abuser who went on to molest many others?

  • JP

    Why only black girls? Why not ALL girls, no matter their color?

    • Thabiti

      Why read this as only applying to black girls when clearly the issues are trans-ethnic?

      Why act as if this doesn’t apply to girls of all ethnicities when, in fact, the vast majority of young women Mr. Cosby alleged assaulted were not black?

      And why protest the protection of black girls as if they’re not a part of the “all girls” you pretend to care so much about?

      Why must I discuss “all girls” when the only time I mention “black girls” is when I’m looking down a row at my own daughters, who like their father, are African American?

      Why must folks take offense at the mere mention of blackness?

      Why, oh why?

      • JP

        YOU are the one who made your comment only about black girls when you said “I will fight. I will fight. I will fight for the black girls in my home, in my community, and around the world.” That sounded like you might be a wee bit racist, and now judging by your reply to me, it sounds like you are an even bigger racist than I was afraid you might be. Since I’m in an interracial marriage, I guess that if I’m “only pretending” to care about all girls, at least I care about both those races and the combination thereof. That’s still more than you care about. You sound like Al Sharpton and I have lost all the respect I once had for you, sir. And I’m ashamed that I once gave away copies of some of your books as supposedly being great Christian books. I won’t make that mistake ever again.

      • Todd

        Hard post to read. Needed but hard. The Cosby situation saddens me so. I was called to a Church where the former pastor was guilty of taking advantage of younger women. This is my 8th year and Brother, some are still pressing through. The domino effect is horrendous. What was more painful believe or not, was not his actions but the sort of silence and celebration of it. Not only does it lead to questioning leadership but it also leads to local Diotrophes using the past as an excuse for non-submission. The effects are horrific.

        Pastors, and now I am addressing Pastor Love and Pastor Carter also. I truly do recognize the cantankerous nature of “twitter gangstas and blog bullies”. However, some of us are still in the trenches and the Lord has not given some of us the opportunity to serve at a Church with a plurality of Elders. Until the Lord opens that door would you guys please consider a Q and A type of forum in a post from time to time? Please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I can only speak for myself but I know that even if I disagree with your perspective on certain issues, I do desperately need another perspective.

        I understand, at the end of the day we are all local pastors but please prayerfully consider. May the Lord continue to use you all for His Kingdom’s sake.

        Todd

        • IsaacOnThePorch

          Hi Todd,

          My name is isaac and I serve as the editor for The Front Porch. We would love to potentially do something a long the Q&A which you requested. Would you mind sending me some potential questions that you’d like to see answered?

          Re: your questions. Please keep in mind that the questions should be useful for the whole body (i.e. please don’t make them specific to your particular situation). Send over a few questions to info@thefrontporch.org and the brothers will see which they might answer. Thank you!

  • PodBoy

    Very ‘courageous’ of you to delete comments that you don’t like and that reveal your complicity with abusers and those who cover them up. You are a coward and a blight on the christian church.

    • Thabiti

      This from someone posting anonymously. Right. Real ‘courageous’ of you.

      • PodBoy

        I didn’t post anonymously. I used my standard profile. And now to my question of why posts pointing out the hypocrisy of the ‘christian elite’ got deleted?

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  • Andre-Hope Taylor

    Thank you thank you for this!

  • Michael L Schafer

    I look forward to the day where we talk as much about protecting our daughters and sons from sexual abuse as we talk about their food allergies. Thanks for bringing it to the porch!