The Huxtables, the Obamas, and the Black American Dream

Cast members of the sitcom “The Cosby Show” during taping of the final episode in New York City, in 1992. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Cast members of the sitcom “The Cosby Show” during taping of the final episode in New York City, in 1992. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

by Vanessa Williams

A friend once threatened to call the Drop Squad on me when I confessed that back in the day I’d enjoyed watching “The Simpsons” more than “The Cosby Show.”

I was not a huge fan of what was at one point America’s top-rated television show. I didn’t hate the sitcom, and for a time I watched it semi-regularly. But I was never among the faithful who rushed home every Thursday evening to follow the lives of Cliff, Claire and their five children.

People have been recalling “The Cosby Show” a lot lately. Some of it has to do with the kick-off of the new television season, and the industry’s continuing struggle to include more African Americans in scripted comedies and dramas. Shows that are black-themed or that feature African Americans in starring roles are invariably, and often unfairly, compared to The Cosby Show. (“Black-ish,” the new ABC comedy about an upscale African American family grappling with shifting race and class mores, is said to be a poor imitator, while Shonda Rhimes’ fierce leading ladies in “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” are thought to be worthy heiresses of Clair Huxtable’s mantle.)

And some of the renewed discussion about the show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, has to do with Mark Whitaker’s new biography of Bill Cosby, “Cosby: His Life and Times,” which some political commentators have called a must read to understand how this country came to elect its first black president. That was how Fareed Zakaria set up a segment with Whitaker on a recent show. “It was ground breaking for certain, especially for the way it portrayed this African-American family with Bill Cosby as the patriarch,” Zakaria said. “But did it break so much ground that without it Barack Obama might not be our president?”

Seems a bit much to hang one of the most significant achievements in American history on a half-hour comedy, no?

Whitaker responded to Zakaria’s question by noting that it was Karl Rove who made the Huxtable-Obama connection on election night 2008 (not to be confused with election night 2012) during a discussion about the historical significance of a black family moving into the White House.

Said Rove: “We’ve had an African-American first family for many years in different forms. When ‘The Cosby Show’ was on, that was America’s family. It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.”

Of course, Rove would swoon over the idea of a self-sufficent, super-achieving black family that rarely talked about racism. So would liberal pols who, in describing Obama’s initial cross-racial appeal, let slip that he was impressive because he was “articulate and bright and clean” and spoke  with “no Negro dialect.” The Huxtables and Obama made many white people feel good about themselves for feeling good black people who make them feel good.

Even so, most white people did not vote for Obama in 2008. A majority of whites between the ages of 18 and 29 — 54 percent — voted for Obama; 57 percent of whites over 30 voted for John McCain, according to an analysis of exit polling by Pew.  But those young people grew up having had far more interaction with black people, thanks to anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action policies that had some success in desegregating housing, schools  and work places, as well as the growth of the black middle class. And although some people would be loathe to acknowledge it, the ubiquitous reach of hip-hop culture – for better and worse – likely had more influence on young white voters than the prim and proper Huxtables.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post

Vanessa Williams is a deputy national editor at The Post and edits the She The People blog. She has covered and edited local and national politics for the paper. Contact her at [email protected].