In “The Cosby Show: Representing Race,” from How to Watch Television, Christine Acham contextualizes The Cosby Show by detailing the relationship between the political climate of the Reagan era and Cosby’s personal ideology. What I found especially fascinating about the chapter is how Acham positions Cosby’s own lack of social or political interest in-line with the needs of conservative politics.
I’d argue that the 1970s signaled a shift in American politics, where a clear divide between liberals and conservatives began to develop (a trend that has continued and is now coming to a head in the Trump/Cruz v. Hillary/Sanders presidential campaign). The frustration coming from the Right in the 1970s seems to be boiled down to the realities brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests, and the women’s liberation and Gay Rights Movements, among countless others. People desired the right to be themselves and thrive in America, and the confines of white supremacy didn’t allow that for them. Conservative Americans saw these groups as challenging their traditions, and rather than get with it, they blamed them for a number of problems that the country was facing. Among those issues, was a declining economy.
As Acham points out, Reagan’s campaign placed the blame of the country’s economic crisis on Carter’s investment in social welfare programs: “His flawed premise was that the liberalism of the post-civil rights era resulted in inflated government supported entitlements, given to so-called undeserving minorities who were allegedly draining the economy” (104). Eventually, Reagan began to ascribe the image of “undeserving minority” to black Americans. And, at a time of growing political tensions, Bill Cosby’s characterization as the apolitical family man suited the type of image of a black man deemed “digestible” for white audiences in the 1980s.
The Cosby Show’s dependency on socio-economic class as a theme throughout the series had numerous implications, but one of the most troubling, as Acham points out, is that the show presented the attitude that if you work hard enough, you can succeed. “One of the great American myths,” Acham writes, “is that anyone who just tries hard enough will succeed, that if one just pulls oneself up by the bootstraps, one can achieve the American dream. Cliff wants his son to do better than ‘regular people,' who hold jobs like bus driver or gas station attendant” (pg. 107). The resulting subtext of the show is that there’s nothing holding anyone back; according to Bill Cosby, black Americans aren’t suppressed by structural racism or white supremacy. If they want to be as rich as Dr. Huxtable, they can do it. The result is a severally conservative perspective that completely disregards numerous social, cultural, and political barriers that allow only some to thrive, or even simply get by.