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Bill Cosby's disturbing love of power, from race rants to drugging women

Bill Cosby performs at the seventh annual Stand Up For Heroes event at Madison Square Garden on November 6, 2013, in New York City.
Bill Cosby performs at the seventh annual Stand Up For Heroes event at Madison Square Garden on November 6, 2013, in New York City.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Here's how US District Judge Eduardo Robreno explained his July 2015 decision to unseal a deposition from a 2005 lawsuit in which Bill Cosby admitted to obtaining Quaaludes to give to women he wanted to have sex with: "The stark contrast between Bill Cosby, the public moralist and Bill Cosby, the subject of serious allegations concerning improper (and perhaps criminal) conduct is a matter as to which the [Associated Press] — and by extension the public — has a significant interest," he wrote.

He was reacting to the growing list of women who had come forward over the past year to accuse Cosby of sexual misconduct. Their stories were  nearly impossible to square with the Cosby Show character, Kids Say the Darndest Things persona, and Jell-O Pudding Pop commercial antics for which Cosby was best known before he was engulfed in scandal.

But even more than that, the allegations can seem impossible to reconcile with the way Cosby saw the world. If you juxtapose the things Cosby said about how people should live with the way he's accused of living — and the things we now know he's admitted to — you get something that goes even deeper than hypocrisy. You get dissonance so intense it's disorienting.

But here's another disturbing idea: Cosby's moral scold persona and the things he's accused of doing to women are compatible. It's easy to imagine that they could have their origins in the same self-important, controlling place — a place where a powerful, widely adored man steamrolls anything that stands between him and what he wants.

Cosby couldn't stand that people didn't live the way he wanted them to

At some point after The Cosby Show went off the air and he left Cliff Huxtable behind in reruns, Cosby transformed from America's Dad to Black America's Character Police. By 2004 — the same year Andrea Constand said he assaulted her in his Pennsylvania home — he had shed the goofy-meets-respectable shtick that many people still remember him for and replaced it with a public persona that was neither fun nor endearing. It all started in May of that year, with his infamous "pound cake speech."

Cosby gave the rambling, mean-spirited speech, nicknamed after a fictional anecdote about a wayward black youth stealing the dessert from a convenience store, at an NAACP event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

He spent his time in front of the microphone detailing a litany of things that poor black people were doing wrong: bad names, bad words, bad clothing, bad priorities, and bad parenting — basically all of the ways that younger black people, in his view, had failed the civil rights generation that came before them. It was a string of stereotype-based admonishments:

  • "Five or six different children, same woman, eight, 10 different husbands or whatever, pretty soon you're going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you're making love to."
  • "Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads..."
  • "These people are fighting hard to be ignorant. ..." And on, and on, and on.

That wasn't all. Cosby took this "black people are terrible" act on the road, traveling the country to tell African-American audiences (and the whole world, indirectly), about everything that he found unacceptable about "No-Grows" — his word for poor black people who failed to model their lives after the Huxtables.

He seemed personally aggrieved by other people's choices, and used his platform and his words to try to strong-arm everyone into living the way he wanted them to.

At the time, the remarks were characterized as "tough love," but this wasn't just Cosby handing out fatherly advice or offering a bootstrappy strategy for overcoming racial inequality and poverty.

He was asserting himself in a new role: the self-appointed arbiter of appropriate African-American behavior. He declared, "The lower economic and lower-middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal."

He oozed disgust for people less privileged than he was, asking, "Who are these sick black people and where did they come from, and why haven't they been parented to shut up?"

In the pound cake speech, he took things to a comically judgmental level, insinuating that black people were failing God himself. "Is Jesus smiling?" he asked from his pulpit. The answer: "Not in one picture. Let's try to make Jesus smile."

It seemed intolerable to him that he was unable to control the narrative of black America in the same way he did on The Cosby Show.

But he didn't live up to his own moral standard

If Cosby's rants were uncomfortable to listen to when they were delivered (and according to reports at the time, they were), they're almost unbearable now.

How dare he shame black people for moral failings? Even those who choose not to believe the allegations against him must admit that the man is certainly no saint. While he denies the sexual assault claims, he has publicly admitted to more than one extramarital affair over the years, and to seeking out sedative drugs to give to women he wanted to have sex with. Based on this alone, it's safe to say that Cosby would not get an affirmative answer if he were to ask himself, "Is Jesus smiling?"

It was this very sense of hypocrisy that inspired comedian Hannibal Buress to say this in an October 2014 standup routine that brought the decades-old allegations against Cosby to the fore: "It's even worse because Bill Cosby has the fuckin' smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people. I was on TV in the '80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!' Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby."

Beyond hypocrisy: Cosby's consistent obsession with power

But there's something more disturbing than hypocrisy happening here. In fact, Cosby's entitled notion that black America should get in line with his expectations is not necessarily at odds with the allegations that suggest he drugged women into sexual compliance.

GQ's Lindy West astutely linked the two, pointing out that the rape allegations include the very brand of victim blaming that was reflected in Cosby's black pathology rants:

And his willingness to go to the mat for racial respectability politics isn't unrelated to his alleged penchant for raping women and then fame-intimidating them into silence. Both are slimy, covert ways to blame victims for their own victimization. Black people aren't oppressed--the wrong kind of black people are just holding everyone back. We can't stop rapists--women just need to work harder to avoid them. Pull your pants up, son. You drank too much, sweetie. Speak proper English if you want to make a living wage. If you didn't like it, then why didn't you fight harder?

But perhaps it goes even further than a penchant for victim blaming. Cosby's tireless efforts to shape social behavior from atop his pedestal of fame suggest that he expected anyone he set his sights on to bend to his will. And if the accusations are true, that's the exact worldview that motivated his alleged crimes against women. After all, experts say it's power, not sex, that rapists truly seek.

For Cosby, it seems, the ends — dominance —  justify the means, and the means involve shutting down whoever gets in the way.

He has used his status to quash the voices of poor African Americans who actually live the lives he wrote off as marred by cultural pathology. They didn't matter.

And in the stories that his accusers tell, he allegedly did the same to them, silencing the women not with judgmental words, but with pills — before taking from them what he wanted.

Even in one of his few recent media appearances, an Associated Press interview, he tried to throw around whatever weight he still had to make sure embarrassing video of him being asked about the sexual assault allegations didn't see the light of day. "I think if you want to consider yourself to be serious," Cosby said to the reporter, "[the footage] will not appear anywhere."

The request was not granted.

It's unlikely that he'll face criminal charges in a court of law, but one thing is clear: He's lost the power he once wielded so arrogantly.

That, for Bill Cosby, must be the worst possible punishment.