On Thursday, “America’s Dad” was convicted of sexual assault.
Cosby’s image as a wholesome sitcom dad and moral exemplar had been irreparably tarnished in the past few years by dozens of women who had come forward with stories of drug-induced sexual assault—some new, some raised a decade ago. But the conviction will define his legacy forever, even if he never spends a day in prison. He went from selling pudding pops and gelatin, from being a comedian who told “clean” jokes and coaxed children into saying funny things, to becoming a symbol of how society allows sexual abuse by powerful men to go unpunished.
If it hadn’t been for his decision to scold poor black Americans for their moral failures while decades of sexual-assault allegations had remained hidden, it’s possible that none of Cosby’s victims would have gotten their day in court.
Five years ago, he seemed to have gotten away with it. Although more than 10 women came forward with allegations against Cosby in the mid-2000s, they would not become fixed in the public consciousness for another decade. In the meantime, Cosby had built an image as a prophet of black conservatism, scolding poor blacks for not lifting themselves out of poverty, and for focusing on discrimination.
“People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?” Cosby said in his 2004 speech to the NAACP, which became known as the “Pound Cake” speech, because of the aforementioned anecdote. “Ladies and gentlemen, in our cities and public schools we have 50 percent drop out. In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.”
Many of the statistics cited in the speech were false, a slander on some of the most vulnerable people in the country, and Cosby seemed less concerned with black prosperity than with black respectability. It wasn’t simply that the black poor were not thriving in America; they were also embarrassing Cliff Huxtable, the dear sitcom doctor dad living in an expensive Brooklyn brownstone. They were not worthy of him. It was not yet clear that the man known as Bill Cosby was as much of a fictional character as the good doctor.
Nevertheless, its moralizing tone drew praise from many within the black community, and especially from white conservatives. The next year, Andrea Constand, whom Cosby was convicted of assaulting on Thursday, would report him to the authorities, and the decades of allegations would begin to come to light. Many people, likely owing to Cosby’s public image, found them irreconcilable with the Cosby they believed they knew, and dismissed the 14 women accusing him at the time as liars. A decade later, that number would eventually grow to more than 50.
The allegations against Cosby never went away, but they did seem to fade in the public consciousness, until about a decade later. In February 2014, Gawker’s Tom Scocca wrote about the strange phenomenon of the public having repressed the memory of the allegations against Cosby: “Basically nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator.” The cultural crescendo against Cosby grew deafening after comedian Hannibal Buress called him out in a comedy routine later that year.
“Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man persona that I hate,” Buress said in October 2014 at the Trocadero, a theater in Cosby’s own native Philadelphia. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ’80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”
As New York magazine’s Noreen Malone would write in July 2015, “Perhaps the most shocking thing wasn’t that Buress had called Cosby a rapist; it was that the world had actually heard him.” A decade prior, the women who accused Cosby, Malone wrote, “were met, mostly, with skepticism, threats, and attacks on their character.”
In July 2015, a judge ruling on a request filed by the Associated Press decided to unseal 2005 depositions of Cosby from a lawsuit filed by Constand in which he acknowledged obtaining sedatives to use on women he wanted to “have sex” with. The judge, Eduardo C. Robreno, wrote that Cosby’s decision to present himself as a moral paragon had affected his decision about whether the documents were of public interest. “The stark contrast between Bill Cosby, the public moralist, and Bill Cosby, the subject of serious allegations concerning improper (and perhaps criminal) conduct, is a matter as to which the AP—and by extension the public —has a significant interest,” Robreno wrote.
Having “donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, childrearing, family life, education, and crime,” he wrote, Cosby had “voluntarily narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim.”
Although a formal indictment of Cosby would not come until December, Cosby had already indicted himself with his own testimony about drugging women. The depositions provided difficult-to-refute evidence against him in court, and in the public consciousness they amounted to an admission of guilt, whatever verdict a jury in a criminal case might reach. Cosby sought to be a moral example to the black poor. Instead, he ended up proving just how much those with wealth, fame, and power can get away with.
It is staggering to think of the scale of the crimes that Cosby has been accused of. It is even more astounding to think that we might not even know about those crimes had Cosby not made the decision to scold poor, black Americans for not engaging in the same superficially “respectable behavior” that allowed him to hide the allegations of dozens of women across decades. He was brought down, in part, by his inability to resist hectoring others on how to behave. Without that, he still might not have remained “America’s Dad” forever. But he might have eluded this reckoning.