Before Obama, There Was Bill Cosby
Some theorists argue that political and social change is preceded by shifts in popular culture. So it’s not surprising that the debate has heated up over who, or what, in arts and entertainment presaged Barack Obama’s election as president.
Many ideas have ricocheted around academia and the blogosphere — from Oprah Winfrey to Tiger Woods to Will Smith to “The West Wing,” to the many actors who have played black presidents, among them Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock (although not that many people actually saw Mr. Rock’s film “Head of State”).
But one idea seems to be gaining traction, and improbably it has Bill Cosby and Karl Rove in agreement: “The Cosby Show,” which began on NBC in 1984 and depicted the Huxtables, an upwardly mobile black family — a departure from the dysfunction and bickering that had characterized some previous shows about black families — had succeeded in changing racial attitudes enough to make an Obama candidacy possible.
On election night Mr. Rove, the former Bush strategist, said on Fox News: “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.”
Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a psychiatrist at the Jude Baker Children’s Center in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School who was a script consultant on “The Cosby Show,” said in an interview that “there were a lot of young people who were watching that show who are now of voting age.”
Dr. Poussaint added: “When ‘The Cosby Show’ first came on, it was a professional, middle-class family. And they said, ‘That’s not a black family.’ We heard it from blacks and whites. I think that’s why Karl Rove calls it postracial, because it was universal.”
In an interview on Thursday Mr. Cosby praised Mr. Obama and his campaign operation as “the architects of the almost perfect run for, and winning of, the office.” He added, “This isn’t something that happened just because of a TV show.”
But Mr. Cosby strongly suggested that his series, which ended in 1992, had a lasting effect on America’s racial views. Its legacy, he said, might have played a role in the country’s embrace of Mr. Obama and his family.
“I would not be surprised with the comfort level of people looking at a family and not being afraid of them, and not holding them to some strange old thoughts of a nation,” he said. “It’s what people have done with themselves by watching that show and believing in it.”
Mr. Cosby said that he had met Mr. Obama, but that the two did not discuss the show. “The Cosby Show,” one of the most popular series in television history, is still shown in syndication in the United States and abroad. In 1994 Sut Jhally, a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts — Mr. Cosby’s alma mater — persuaded Mr. Cosby to donate $16,000 for research on why the show was so popular among white as well as black audiences. (Mr. Cosby himself had no influence on the study, according to Professor Jhally, and the book that came out of the research, “Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream,” was critical of the show.)
“After Obama won the other night, and listening to the reactions from both the white Americans and the black Americans, it was like a rerun of research we did on ‘The Cosby Show,’ ” Professor Jhally said. “Black families we interviewed were incredibly proud and incredibly grateful that finally there were images that were dignified, and they were represented as human. White Americans would say, ‘Here is an intact black family.’ ”
During the campaign many Democrats worried that the so-called Bradley effect — the theory that white voters will express support for black candidates in polls but not in the voting booth — would work against their candidate. So did the Huxtable effect counteract Bradley?
The term Huxtable effect was coined by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, a novelist and blogger who often writes about how pop culture portrays minorities.
Last Saturday Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez was in line for early voting on the campus of the University of New Mexico. As she waited about 35 minutes to cast her ballot, she said, she overheard a conversation between two graduate students, neither of whom were black.
“They started to talk about their families and how they wished they were part of the Huxtable family,” she said.
Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez, a former journalist who covered culture and the arts and who is the daughter of a sociology professor, cited the Harlem Renaissance in literature and art, which came about 30 years before the civil rights movement, as an example of pop culture’s anticipating political change.
For a certain generation of young voters, she said, “It’s not Ward Cleaver who was the all-American dad; it was Cliff Huxtable.”
Tom Werner, who was an executive producer of “The Cosby Show,” called the series groundbreaking in its effect on audiences. “Bill depicted the Huxtables as an American family that happened to be black, rather than as an African-American family,” he said. “For Bill, family was more important than race.”
Interestingly, the parameters of the show turned out very differently from Mr. Cosby’s original idea. Rather than having Cliff Huxtable be a doctor, and his wife, Clair, a lawyer, he said, his idea was for the husband to be a limousine driver and the wife to be a carpenter.
Because race was largely beside the point in the show, its supposed impact on the culture has not always been obvious. “I think it’s had more of an effect than I appreciated,” Dr. Poussaint said. “I wasn’t making that connection because I kept forgetting that kids were raised on that show, and people are still watching it.”
“And I think we have had a carry-over effect to people responding very positively to Obama,” he added. “It changed some attitudes and perceptions that I think served Obama well in his candidacy.”