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Commentary By Jason L. Riley

Bill Cosby Couldn't Pull the Race Card—Unlike O.J. Simpson

Culture Race

Is this some measure of progress? Maybe. But black leaders long ago wrote the comedian off as an ‘elitist.’

Twenty-three years after the O.J. Simpson acquittal, another black man whose celebrity transcended race has been tried for crimes against a white woman. In this case, too, the evidence of guilt seems overwhelming. But unlike the O.J. case, this one has not been derailed by racial controversy. Does Bill Cosby’s conviction represent some measure of racial progress?

In 1995, to the astonishment of millions, Mr. Simpson beat a double-murder rap. Last week, Mr. Cosby was convicted of sexual assault. The Simpson trial, which lasted nearly a year, could not have been more racially polarizing. News of the ex-football player’s acquittal prompted cheers among many blacks, even those who thought he was guilty of killing his former wife and her friend. The Simpson case sparked endless chatter about policing, jury nullification and the criminal justice system’s treatment of black men.

Today those discussions continue—in part because social media increases the visibility of everything from a police shooting to a trespassing incident at Starbucks —but they seem to have had little impact on how the Cosby case played out. Nor did blacks circle the wagons as so many had around Mr. Simpson. Here and there, you’ll find someone who believes the comedian was the victim of some racist conspiracy. But most people, of all races, believe that justice finally was served.

When Mr. Cosby played the race card in interviews, it was dismissed as an act of desperation. And when his publicist went on television after last week’s verdict and compared Mr. Cosby to Emmett Till, the black teen who was murdered and disfigured in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman, people cringed.

The political left is boasting that the #MeToo movement convicted Mr. Cosby, but the jurors say it was the accuser’s credibility and Mr. Cosby’s own words in a deposition. “Mr. Cosby admitted to giving these Quaaludes to women, young women, in order to have sex,” said one of the jurors, Harrison Snyder, on “Good Morning America.” Mr. Snyder added that he’d never even heard of the #MeToo movement until he read the media coverage after the trial.

If Mr. Snyder is being truthful, this is progress. Our criminal-justice system ought to be making decisions based on evidence, not historical wrongs or social-movement zeitgeist. Still, there were likely wider social factors at play that explain why blacks in general, and many black elites in particular, reacted to this case very differently than to Mr. Simpson’s more than two decades ago.

Since the mid-2000s, Mr. Cosby has made more headlines for his social conservatism than for his comedy. In 2004, he was the featured speaker at a black-tie event in Washington that marked the golden anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Mr. Cosby was being honored for his education philanthropy, and according to his biographer, Mark Whitaker, the organizers had expected him say some words of thanks and tell a few jokes to close out the evening.

Instead, the comedian used his allotted time to fume about fatherless homes, the school achievement gap, black crime rates and civil-rights leaders, who he said spent too much time making excuses for these outcomes. His larger point was that many blacks today were not taking advantage of opportunities created by a previous generation of civil-rights trailblazers.

“These people, they opened the doors,” he said, pointing to surviving lawyers and activists from the Brown case in attendance. “They gave us the right, and today, in our cities and public schools we have 50% dropout rates. In our own neighborhoods, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of a child.”

After going on at some length in this fashion, Mr. Whitaker writes, “Cosby left the stage, to applause and cheers, but also more than a few stunned expressions in the crowd.” In the weeks, months and years to follow, Mr. Cosby would face a furious blowback—especially from black intellectuals and activists. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took issue with his comments. Michael Eric Dyson, a black academic, accused the entertainer of advancing “classist, elitist viewpoints . . . that only reinforce suspicions about black humanity.” Ta-Nehisi Coates called him “the patron saint of black elitists.”

Mr. Cosby refused to apologize or back down, taking his message of personal responsibility to black churches and inner-city schools and prisons. But he would never recover his reputation as a genial jokester. If O.J. Simpson benefited from racial tribalism, Bill Cosby was on his own. Well before the epic hypocrisy and myriad accusations of his reprehensible behavior toward women become widely known, Mr. Cosby was on the outs with conventional black thought leaders. They convicted him a long time ago.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal