Looking back, it’s ironic to remember how the charges against Bill Cosby were not taken seriously until after they became a joke.
The joke was told on a stage in Philadelphia four years ago by rising Chicago-based actor-comedian Hannibal Buress.
Buress, 35, is probably too young to remember much of Cosby’s heyday as “America’s dad” on stage, screen and comedy albums and other lovely honorifics from the mid-1960s through the ’90s. His generation is more familiar with the more grimly serious and conservative social critic who emerged in Cosby’s historic “pound cake” speech during an NAACP awards ceremony in Washington in 2004.
In the speech, which went viral on the internet, Cosby was highly critical of such social deficits in black America as the prevalence of single-parent families, conspicuous consumption at the expense of necessities and a general lack of personal responsibility.
“People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake,” he famously grumbled at one point. “And 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 was criticized by some who saw his speech as being too harsh regarding the black poor, many of whom are trying hard to help themselves and their neighborhoods. But it also drew praise from many in the black community and especially from white conservatives, some of whom wanted him to run for president.
But Buress, who also is African-American, changed all that after a cellphone camera caught him during a nightclub set in 2014 ripping into mounting accusations of sexual misconduct against Cosby that had previously been aired but largely ignored publicly.
“Pull your pants up, black people, I was on TV in the ’80s,” Buress said, mocking Cosby’s practice of scolding of black youth for passing up valuable opportunities because they were not behaving properly.
“Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby,” said Buress, stirring a mix of laughter with gasps of surprise. “So turn the crazy down a couple notches.”
The episode might have ended there except for video caught by an audience member in an early signal of a rising digital age in which cellphone cameras change history.
The video marked a tipping point in the national Cosby conversation. Within days, national media were giving new respect to dozens of women who were coming forward with more stories of Cosby assaulting them sexually.
But statutes of limitation made most of the charges too old to be prosecuted. Then Andrea Constand, an employee at Cosby’s alma mater, Temple University, charged that Cosby had drugged and raped her in 2004. That trial ended in a hung jury last year.
But a few months later came another show-business-related event that has turned the tide for Cosby and numerous other famous and powerful men facing similar accusations: the outing of Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator, a scandal that has borne fruit in the #MeToo movement.
It is hard to say how much the changed atmosphere had to do with Cosby’s conviction on three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Constand. But there can be little doubt that complaints of sexual misconduct are no longer dismissed as casually as they used to be.
Cosby probably will appeal his conviction as he awaits sentencing. But the very fact that his conviction occurred marks a breakthrough, not only for the victims but also for the rest of us who, like me, are shocked and disappointed to see the parade of prominent men who have lost their jobs over charges that used to be taken too lightly.
Now reruns of “The Cosby Show” are disappearing from cable channels, where for decades they were a money machine. Harder to erase, I hope, will be two national conversations Cosby has helped to ignite, wittingly or unwittingly, about helping the poor to fight poverty and helping the victims of sexual predators to find justice.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter