Bill Cosby's relationship with African Americans is anything but black and white

A Philadelphia jury has been deadlocked on reaching an answer to the question that has been hovering over Bill Cosby for more than two years — his guilt or innocence in the sexual assault of a former Temple University basketball staffer.

But their dilemma and ultimate decision — or non-decision if it’s a hung jury — may do little to illuminate another question that has long shadowed the entertainer:

During the latter stages of his five-decades-long career, the entertainer has had a love-hate relationship with black America, where he is regarded as:

(a) A beloved, heroic figure who broke down several barriers as an artist, educator, philanthropist and creator of “The Cosby Show,” which revolutionized television with its portrait of an affluent, educated black family.

And/or:

(b) An outspoken scold who chastised poorer blacks on issues ranging from bad grammar to the squandering of opportunities provided by the civil rights movement.

“In terms of how black people feel about the verdict, I think it will be split,” said comedian Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton, author of “Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy.” “There will be some who really will want him to retain his legacy. But I think those will be in the minority.”

Added Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies: “There has always been this ambivalence with blacks when it comes to Bill Cosby. On one hand, he’s the Sidney Poitier of TV. He’s definitely been a major contributor — his philanthropy alone has been very important. But he’s also rubbed some people the wrong way by this ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ approach. He talks down to some people at times.”

Some observers of the proceedings have drawn comparisons between the Cosby case and the murder trial of former football star O.J. Simpson. Inside that courtroom, race took center stage in several instances, particularly when Simpson defense attorney Johnnie Cochran maintained Simpson had been targeted by Los Angeles Police Department Det. Mark Fuhrman, who had been taped used racial epithets in the past. And the not-guilty verdict exposed the simmering rift between whites and blacks who felt the justice system had treated African Americans unfairly.

Although the 12-member Cosby jury has just two African Americans, experts ranging from entertainers to scholars claim the Cosby case lacks a similarly sharp racial edge, largely due to allegations by more than 50 women who say Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them.

“It’s not a black-white issue with Cosby,” said Littleton. “There are just too many women involved.”

Other factors separate the two cases. Despite his massive popularity, Simpson was not comfortable embracing his cultural identity and failed to demonstrate an appreciation for the support of African Americans following his criminal acquittal. Cosby was the opposite — although he aimed for a mainstream audience throughout his career, his blackness was a major part of his persona. He constantly showed his love for jazz, donated millions to historically black colleges and featured African American art and culture in “The Cosby Show.”

Some observers pointed out that African American sentiment toward Cosby when it comes to this trial is much more layered.

“These charges are his biggest problems,” said veteran writer-producer Larry Wilmore (“black-ish,” “Insecure,” “The Bernie Mac Show”). “If they didn’t exist, it would be that black people don’t like things he says. But there are a lot of black people who agree with him too. Some of that is generational, some of that is class.”

Ground zero of Cosby’s long-fraught relationship to African Americans is a 2004 ceremony at Howard University celebrating the anniversary of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision.

During an address at the event, Cosby issued a strong rebuke to young blacks.

"These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we have these knuckleheads running around,” he said of what he perceived as young people disrespecting the legacy of civil rights activists. “I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is' ... and I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk. ... Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth."

He also knocked their fashion sense: “Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down the crack?” Even when several prominent blacks expressed displeasure with the remarks, Cosby did not back down.

While some in the black community praised Cosby for his bluntness, saying his statements were painful but on target, others felt his tone and some of his words were harmful and elitist, particularly younger blacks.

“What irritated a lot of people is he didn’t take any overt action like getting out into the community,” Littleton said. “There’s a certain kind of individual that once they get over, they look down on people we used to dwell with. Cosby gave so much to colleges, but he was not an activist like [former NFL player and film star] Jim Brown, who worked at the forefront of gang violence. Cosby could have done public service and gone out into the community.”

Among those upset was comedian Hannibal Buress, who found Cosby’s pronouncements hypocritical, particularly in the swirl of rumors about his alleged sexual misdeeds. His comedic riff on Cosby, filmed on a smartphone during a club gig in Philadelphia and posted on YouTube in 2014, was the spark for the firestorm and was a major factor leading up to the current legal proceedings.

In the profanity-laced rant, Buress said that Cosby had the "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.’ '’

Said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts: “Cosby emerged into the public consciousness in the 1960s. When I was a kid, Bill Cosby was a celebrity, a star, and there were a lot fewer African Americans celebrities at that time than there are now. For people in the younger side of the generational divide that is amplified by the Internet, social media and the digital age, it’s different. It’s hard to get people of a certain age to have any appreciation for Cosby or anyone else of that era. It’s not what they identify with, so they’re dismissive.”

He added that Cosby’s image also plays a role in the disconnect with younger blacks.

“Bill Cosby cultivated an image that appealed to the mainstream, an image that over time proved to be false,” he said. “From the advent of hip-hop going forward, there are a number of African American celebrities that have not cultivated that mainstream image. In fact, they’ve done the opposite and have been successful, so they don’t understand why Cosby would act the way he did.”

Last year, “The Jerrod Carmichael Show,” an NBC family sitcom that has taken on several topical issues concerning African Americans, tackled the nuances surrounding Cosby’s image.

In the episode called “Fallen Heroes,” Carmichael, a comedian who plays a fictional version of himself, surprises his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) with tickets to a Cosby concert. But she is horrified by the allegations and refuses to go.

As they argue, other family members weigh in: His father, Joe (David Alan Grier), says Cosby is innocent until proven guilty. His mother, Cynthia (Loretta Devine), is a Cosby fan. His brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howery) complains that Cosby is too critical of young people. Bobby’s ex-wife Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish) points out how Cosby and his wife contributed more than $100 million to Morehouse and Spelman, two historically black colleges. And Jerrod chastises Tiffany for going to see Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” when the filmmaker’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow resurrected her accusations that he molested her when she was a child.

So, it’s complicated. And these conversation are not limited to houses of people of color but can be more heated within them.

Comedian Franklyn Ajaye said that no matter what the verdict is, he hopes that black America sees that Cosby’s criticisms were “a desperate call for black people to get more education, and conduct themselves with more dignity and self-respect if they want to navigate more successfully through the racially hostile environment that America is. It was done out of love — tough love to be sure. The messenger was flawed, but not the message.”

greg.braxton@latimes.com

Twitter:@GeBraxton

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