The Cos’ Effect

Nearly 20 years after its final episode, The Cosby Show continues to be a powerful teaching tool and an intense source of discussion.

As someone who grew up watching the Huxtables, I often mistook the sitcom for reality. The Huxtables were not characters, but real people whose experiences I could relate to. Moreover, my connection with The Cosby Show was shaped in part by my environment.

I grew up around Jack & Jills — young people whose parents were part of the Jack and Jill Society, an upper and upper-middle class Black organization — and others who had been exposed to the privileges of African-American affluence. The representations in The Cosby Show seemed representative of my upbringing in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

But as Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis noted in their 1992 book Enlightened Racism, too many people see The Cosby Show as real. This can, as they note, have positive and negative consequences, including a White backlash against affirmative action in the 1980s and 1990s. The Huxtables were somehow seen as embodying what could be accomplished in the absence of racism.

I led a discussion about The Cosby Show in one of my classes, where most of the students are freshmen or sophomores. Though they were too young to remember the show during its original run, all of them told me they have watched it on syndication regularly.

Ironically, many of my students felt that The Cosby Show was a powerful force in their lives and that their parents encouraged them to watch the show to get positive role models. This is troubling because we too often rely upon mediated representations to help us construct our views. The Huxtables are fictional and yet are used as socializing agents.

One of my students said watching the show made him proud of his race, a similar refrain among the respondents studied in the Jhally and Lewis book. Again, should Cliff and Claire Huxtable be a barometer for racial pride?

There have been numerous studies on The Cosby Show’s impact on race relations and conceptualizations of class but I don’t think any of them can accurately measure how much the show has shaped us.

It was just that unique. Period.

Some of my students have said the show is just good and that we shouldn’t take away anything else other than that. “It’s just entertainment,” one of my students said. “Why do we take this stuff so seriously?”

Perhaps we do because we continue to have contradictions in what we consume in media and our actual experiences. At the height of The Cosby Show’s popularity, many programs designed to help communities of color were rolled back. Now, we seem to use The Cosby Show as the beginning — and Barack Obama’s election as the pinnacle — of a post-racial America.

The problem is that we continue to be a highly racialized society and that failing to understand the ideological implications of The Cosby Show won’t advance our discussion on race and class.

Maybe we need to have that long overdue dialogue on race that Obama promised.

If we do, I promise to pull up some clips of The Cosby Show to start that discussion.