The Cosby Syndrome
A Boy Like Me
Please read this one. It does relate to autism. I think it's best for me not to explain how directly, at least not much, and not until the end. I'd rather have you put things together in your own way.
Part One. The Effect of Bigotry on Self-Image
Did you know that dolls played a crucial role in desegregating America's schools?
One of the things that lawyers had to prove in Brown vs. The Board of Education was that a system that separated children by race had damaging effects. A key piece of evidence that they used to do that was a series of experiments with dolls done by African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark:
The Clarks' doll experiments grew out of Mamie Clark's master's degree thesis. They published three major papers between 1939 and 1940 on children's self perception related to race. Their studies found contrasts among children attending segregated schools in Washington, DC versus those in integrated schools in New York. They found that black children often preferred to play with white dolls over black; that, asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, they frequently chose a lighter shade than was accurate; and that the children gave the color "white" attributes such as good and pretty, but "black" was qualified as bad and ugly.They viewed the results as evidence that the children had internalized racism caused by being discriminated against and stigmatized by segregation.
The video above is from 1968. In it, actor Bill Cosby contrasts pictures created by African American and Caucasian children. Dr. Emanuel Hammer explains that the pictures drawn by white kids show healthy self-images, while the ones created by black kids show feeling of powerlessness. It's disturbing for at least three reasons:
A. The contrast between the pictures, which indicates that black and white children still saw themselves very differently, even after school desegregation. It was not necessary for kids to be completely separated from the dominant culture in order to feel inferior to it.
B. Dr. Hammer adopts a standard similar to the one used by the children in the Clark experiment: the work created by the the dominant group, the white kids, is "good," so the ways in which the work created by the minority group vary from it must be "bad." But my first reaction when I look at them is that white kids' pictures are "ordinary" and "boring," while the black kids' pictures are "original" and "talented." Does everyone in every picture have to smile and have arms? It is also possible that the pictures reflect not just subjective self-image but reality: I can think of a lot of reasons why white kids would see more smiling people than black kids in 1968.
C. African American Cosby has adopted the same standards as the white doctor. He agrees that the work created by the majority is good, and that the work of people like himself is bad. He believes that the way to help people like himself is to help them be more like the people in the dominant group. He associates "white" with "good," in much more subtle ways than the ways that kids in the Clark doll experiment did.
Co-Star Robert Culp on Race
Cosby Biography on Early Career
Robert Culp on Cosby
Part Two. Success Means Being Like the Dominant Group
Bill Cosby's series I Spy debuted in 1965, the year I was born. It was a James Bond knock-off that made history by casting comedian Cosby opposite Caucasian actor Robert Culp. The two were shown as glamorous friends and equals. Although some station refused to air the series, it was a hit and Cosby won an Emmy for each of its three seasons.
Mister 8, a blog about spy fiction, looked at articles from the time that the series premiered.
Although I Spy will have no racial messages–Cosby vetoed any dialogue based on racial issues–the racial impact of the show is obvious. After executive producer Sheldon Leonard decided he wanted Cosby as a regular on I Spy, he expected much more trouble than he actually got. Since Cosby was hired before co-star Culp, Leonard anticipated difficulty along that line, but Culp was happy to work with Cosby once he saw Cosby’s acting in the pilot film.
“Then everybody told us we were going to have trouble with the sponsors,” recalls Leonard, “but none of the boogie men we had foreseen ever materialized. We have more sponsors than we need.”
Cosby avoids racial material in I Spy because he has built a non-racial image through his particular style of comedy. Yet, he freely admits that his job is a by-product of the “revolution.” “Negroes like Martin Luther King and Dick Gregory; Negro groups like the Deacons and the Muslins–are all dedicated to the cause of civil rights,” notes Cosby, “but they do their jobs in their own way. My way is to show white people that Negroes are human beings with the same aspirations and abilities that whites have.” It looks as if Cosby’s own aspirations and abilities are quite clear. “After eight shows,” says Leonard, “Bill was as advanced as many actors are after eight years.”
And from The New York Times:
One thing for sure, bigots everywhere are going to be baffled at how to object to the televised Cosby image. In black and white or in the full panoply of NBC color, from those big brown eyes to burnished brogues, he is more unretouched Ivy League than many an authentic Princeton graduate. Cosby comes by the patina honestly, having attended Temple University to his junior year, becoming a physical education major and an outstanding athlete there.
…[Cosby:] “He is a Negro ‘good guy’ working equally with a white man for a patriotic cause–a premise which may not be accepted by every Negro watching. In other words, though the part is never the usual put-down of the Negro people, I feel I have to be careful that it doesn’t become an exaggeration of another kind. I hope we don’t receive any artificial praise–for the wrong reasons. I’d like ‘I Spy’ to be judged on its entertainment values.”
With hindsight, Cosby's insight and self-knowledge are amazing:
My way is to show white people that Negroes are human beings with the same aspirations and abilities that whites have.
This is exactly the same formula that he would use to break down racial boundaries throughout his career. It was his goal to show America that he could play on any field they gave him: he succeeded as a student, as an athlete, as comedian, and as actor. Not only could he play, but he could win. And be such a nice guy about it that you didn't even mind losing.
In the 1960s, people of different races were even more afraid of each other than they were now. Cosby successfully made white people less afraid of black people through his charm and his emphasis on commonalities. He made black people less afraid to take their rightful place in universities and in the worlds of sports and entertainment. He did a tremendous amount of good.
And he did it by showing that black people could succeed, according to the standards of white people. White people defined what success was. They chose the games and made up the rules. Cosby believed that black people could best succeed by learning those rules.
The Cosby Show, Season Two, Episode One
Nearly two decades after I Spy, Cosby enjoyed his greatest television success. Premiering in 1984, The Cosby Show was the perfect Reagan era sitcom. Cosby played doctor Cliff Huxtable and his wife was a beautiful lawyer. Their family was charming, funny, affluent, unthreatening-- everything Cosby himself was.
The trouble was that the Huxtables were a very atypical African American family. Yes, black people were every bit as capable as becoming doctors and lawyers as Caucasians, but they did not have anything like thing the same opportunities. The only significant obstacles that the Huxtable kids faced were their own laziness and willfulness. It was a fantasy, albeit a specifically black one, as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes:
In fact, blackness was never absent from the show or from Bill Cosby. Plots involved black artists like Stevie Wonder or Dizzy Gillespie. The Huxtables’ home was decorated with the works of black artists like Annie Lee, and the show featured black theater veterans such as Roscoe Lee Brown and Moses Gunn. Behind the scenes, Cosby hired the Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint to make sure that the show never trafficked in stereotypes and that it depicted blacks in a dignified light. Picking up Cosby’s fixation on education, Poussaint had writers insert references to black schools. “If the script mentioned Oberlin, Texas Tech, or Yale, we’d circle it and tell them to mention a black college,” Poussaint told me in a phone interview last year. “I remember going to work the next day and white people saying, ‘What’s the school called Morehouse?’” In 1985, Cosby riled NBC by placing an anti-apartheid sign in his Huxtable son’s bedroom. The network wanted no part of the debate. “There may be two sides to apartheid in Archie Bunker’s house,” the Toronto Star quoted Cosby as saying. “But it’s impossible that the Huxtables would be on any side but one. That sign will stay on that door. And I’ve told NBC that if they still want it down, or if they try to edit it out, there will be no show.” The sign stayed.
The Cosby Show taught white Americans that racism was a thing of the past and undermined support for policies like Affirmative Action that were designed to address it. It taught black Americans that if they, or their children, were not succeeding, it was due to their own bad character, not institutional obstacles.
And it maintained the idea that the way for black people to succeed was to live and behave as much like successful white people as possible.
Cosby's May 2004 speech on the anniversary of Brown vs. The Board of Education
Part Three: The Exception Rejects His Own
In the decade following the success of The Cosby Show, Cosby's own son was shot while changing a tire in an apparent robbery attempt. On May 2004, he gave a speech at an event celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that desegregated America's schools, and focused on his disappointment in his own African American community:
But these people, the ones up here in the balcony fought so hard. Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! 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? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else And I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, 'If you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.' Not 'You're going to get your butt kicked.' No. 'You're going to embarrass your family.'
Then he attacked African American naming traditions, and the style of dress among young blacks: “Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people. They are showing you what’s wrong … What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don’t know a damned thing about Africa— with names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed, and all that crap, and all of them are in jail.” About then, people began to walk out of the auditorium and cluster in the lobby. There was still cheering, but some guests milled around and wondered what had happened. Some thought old age had gotten the best of Cosby. The mood was one of shock.
After what has come to be known as “the Pound Cake speech”—it has its own Wikipedia entry—Cosby came under attack from various quarters of the black establishment. The playwright August Wilson commented, “A billionaire attacking poor people for being poor. Bill Cosby is a clown. What do you expect?” One of the gala’s hosts, Ted Shaw, the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, called his comments “a harsh attack on poor black people in particular.” Dubbing Cosby an “Afristocrat in Winter,” the Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson came out with a book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, that took issue with Cosby’s bleak assessment of black progress and belittled his transformation from vanilla humorist to social critic and moral arbiter. “While Cosby took full advantage of the civil rights struggle,” argued Dyson, “he resolutely denied it a seat at his artistic table.”
Cosby's condemnation of crime and absentee parenting crime makes sense. His hostility toward people with African names and toward rap music don't.
I want to make one thing clear before continuing: I do not think Bill Cosby ever deliberately attacked black people in order to advance himself with whites. He made the "Pound Cake" speech to inspire black people-- he did not make it in order to ingratiate himself with white audiences, or with white voters.
Warning: strong language and content
When comedian Chris Rock made similar points, it was hard to know if he was defying racism or confirming it.
Barack Obama condemns African America fathers.
When Barack Obama did the same thing during his presidential campaign, he seemed to be giving this message, at least to me:
Look, white people. I know that most black guys are lazy and that most of the problems we blame on racism are really their own fault. I'm not one of the those guys, and you can tell I am because I am willing to call out the guys who are!
I look black, but I'm like you.
We've reached a point in history and discourse when one of the best ways for people from a minority group to be accepted by the majority is to attack their own community. Gay people have gotten especially good at this, and I see enough of it from people with autism that it scares me.
A Girl Like Me
Part Four: The Problem with Exceptionalism
In 2005, teenager Kiri Young replicated the Clarks' doll experiment for her documentary A Girl Like Me (above). She found that African American children still preferred Caucasian dolls. And black actresses still straighten their hair and get plastic surgery to give them more "conventional" features.
We have proven that exceptional individuals like Bill Cosby and Barack Obama can transcend race in the United States. But often, though, we have been content to stop there, rather than working to make race something that does not need to transcended.
The story of someone like Temple Grandin proves that people with autism can succeed. And she makes it clear that her extraordinary success is a result of her autism, not "in spite of it" or "a triumph over" it. But people who write about her do use that language all the time.
I also see a lot of times when "autistic" is used as a synonym for "bad," and we define "good" as simply being more similar to neurotypical people. And that is problematic, as Ari Ne'eman noted in a recent speech:
We can pursue communication as good unto itself. We can pursue people not hurting themselves as a good unto itself. There is no reason one has to pursue those things as bad because they are associated with autism. Presumably we possess some form of judgment here, that we don't need that shorthand. But when we adopt the model that says, "Because there are some bad things that happen to Autistic people, autism must be bad," we end up with ridiculous contortions, we end up discouraging hand flapping -- why? because it's something Autistic children do, something Autistic adults do as well. We end up encouraging eye contact -- why? because it's something "normal" people do.
We need to be careful that we do not simply assume something is better just because it seems more neurotypical.
And we need to work hard to stop sending the message to children, and to adults, that who they are is wrong.
I think most kids with autism would choose an NT doll to play with, if the difference was visible.