Bill Cosby Supports A ‘Muslim Cosby Show,’ But The Research Does Not

By Arturo R. García

Bill Cosby seems to be behind the idea of a “Muslim Cosby Show,” which is understandable – until we remember that he paid for research that contradicts his argument on its behalf.

According to The Root.com’s Jenée Desmond-Harris , Cosby called the site to defend the concept, brought up almost flippantly by CBS’ Katie Couric on her webseries this past December. As part of a panel discussion – which included Desmond-Harris’ colleague, Sheryl Huggins Salomon – Couric made this suggestion:

Maybe we need a Muslim version of The Cosby Show… I know that sounds crazy, I know that sounds crazy. But The Cosby Show did so much to change attitudes about African-Americans in this country, and I think sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand — like you, Mo… If they became part of the popular culture …

During the call, Desmond-Harris wrote, Cosby emphasized his show’s focus on the family unit as a way viewers could find common ground:

When I get into taxicabs and/or limousines — and you know the taxicab situation in Washington, D.C.; that’s little Africa — every time I take the cab and I go to the hotel — the Madison, the Jefferson — the guy will look in the rearview mirror with recognition. And then I say, ‘How is the family?’

That’s when [the cab drivers] will break out pictures of the children. These are people from different countries in Africa, all of ‘em males — I’ve not met the females yet. But they talk about the family, they talk about what the children are doing, what they themselves are doing. They work 16 hours a day, and they all echo the same thing: You know why I like that [Cosby] show? Because it’s about family.

Later in the interview, he says a family-friendly show involving American Muslims would “put the truth out” and force the viewers to ask themselves key questions:

Am I a person who needs to change my attitude about [someone]? Was I a hater, and enjoying hating, and enjoying the fact that I really did not understand? That like an awful lot of racists, I didn’t care to know the truth, I just enjoyed hating? In the Muslim religion and culture, it can be different [from what we believe], but it’s what they believe in. If we take the good [from it] and the good works, it’s all there and it’s all about the same thing: Do good unto others. The strength of oneself.

What Cosby doesn’t mention are the less-than-positive results of a study he funded by University of Massachusetts-Amherst professors Sut Jhally and Justin M. Lewis, released in 1992 under the title Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences and the Myth of the American Dream. A synopsis of the findings is posted at Professor Jhally’s website:

[The Cosby Show] promotes the dangerous myth that blacks who don’t “make it” have only themselves to blame. The authors interviewed 52 focus groups, learning that viewers involve themselves deeply with the show and often see it as reality. White viewers can identify with and accept TV’s Huxtable family as “nice” blacks; black viewers appreciate the show’s lack of racial stereotyping. However, the authors argue, The Cosby Show ‘s images of the black upper class — like most images broadcast in recent years — hide and distort how most blacks live, thus relieving white viewers of responsibility for such inequalities.

However, Azeem Ibrahim, a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, defended the idea in a column for Illume Magazine, citing the work of playwright Wajahat Ali as a guidepost:

Ali’s characters bicker, laugh, complain, pontificate and discuss topical issues such as racial profiling, the War in Afghanistan, religious values and the importance of lamb biryani in a refreshingly honest, self critical and amusing manner reflecting the diversity of opinions that exists within Muslim communities.

But the core of the play deals with their very common and universal issues that everyone struggles with on a daily basis regardless of religion or race — questions of identity, purpose, sibling rivalry, dating, and parental expectations. The globalized dialogue, which mixes slang, proper English, Urdu and Arabic, feels authentic and reflects the multicultural mosaic of modern America.

By creating real, complex human characters, who just happen to be Muslim and American, Ali’s play illuminates the beautiful thread of commonality that exists and is shared between two allegedly alien cultures that some incorrectly assume are destined to clash. The play is a rare cultural story that simultaneously satisfies both Muslim and non Muslim audiences and proves conclusively that being Muslim and American is not mutually exclusive.

Plays like The Domestic Crusaders and TV shows like The Cosby Show cannot shoulder the burden in magically erasing bigotry and the cultural divides that persist. However, these universal stories, in conjunction with active political and civic engagement, education, responsible and effective foreign policy, fair and balanced stories by the media, and successful partnerships with multicultural communities, can help eliminate fear and misunderstanding.

Phrased like that, the thought of an American counterpart to Canada’s Little Mosque On The Prairie sounds more plausible. But if anything, a more informal “study” by The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi showed … well, it’s apparently going to take a lot to win over the “average American”:

In the story, Mandvi interviews Cordoba Initiative chairman Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a consultant on The Cosby Show, before unveiling a near pitch-perfect mock-up of the show featuring a suburbanite family – the teenage son listens to Toby Keith! – to a focus group that is less than receptive, offering up these critiques:

  • “If you’re trying to portray Islam, maybe you should talk about Islam.”
  • “You gotta have that closet terrorist or something.”
  • “You could have, like, an uncle Rahib or something, who came over and he’s a Bedouin and he lives in the basement in a sandbox or something, with a goat.”

Like a lot of the Daily’s best stories, Mandvi’s conclusion is as cringe-worthy as it is true: “Apparently, the best way for a show to combat Muslim stereotypes is to confirm Muslim stereotypes.” It would seem Jhally’s and Lewis’ findings still hold up.

  • Anonymous

    I can understand where you’re coming from and have even felt this kind of frustration. Sometimes I wonder why I make the effort to take classes concerning other racial and/or ethnic groups (and other minority groups). But then I’m not expecting someone to give me a cookie for doing something out a desire to understand other people and foment significant relationships. As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that I really feel out of place in comparing myself to American ideals of beauty, education, economics, family life and so on. And there’s a reason why I feel inadequate and there’s a reason why I have certain challenges that maybe other people can’t understand or are privileged not to go through. But I know that there are some common experiences and even experiences I don’t know, understand or am privileged not to endure. Sometimes I fall into that trap of thinking because we are kindred people with similar history it’s right that we should join together in solidarity. It’s right that we should be friends. It’s right that we should love each other and have close relationships of any nature. But that ignores the fact that personally I don’t know you. We can be complete strangers and I shouldn’t have this expectation of you based on race/ethnicity (and other markers of minority status). And with historical amnesia being what it is it hurts to find that maybe other people don’t feel the same way or share similar ideas. That maybe they think lowly of you because they’ve been indoctrinated much like everyone else. I’m also a product of that indoctrination, so I have to continually challenge my biases and prejudices. But some people even when challenged don’t want to give up those views. And you just have to accept that.

    But you know, a friend of mine kind of expressed some frustration that maybe the multiculturalism and learning of other peoples doesn’t really strengthen you. Perhaps it widens your purview but maybe it takes away time and energies that could be used in strengthening racial/ethnic identity. Maybe that’s true for some people. I know that one of my advisers suggested being strong in your heritage first before branching out into other communities. Hypothetically that should be the best strategy. So that you aren’t weak in knowing yourself. But not everyone has such a straight path. Some may take a really long time to achieving self-knowledge. Some may never even get there, or may be fleeing what everyone believes about them. I’m of the belief that although you may develop set core values early on, you are always finding yourself in life.

    Anyway, regarding this particular issue . . . if they want to make a Muslim Cosby Show, it should be because Muslim people want it. I don’t think it would be effective. Perhaps they can improve on the Cosby model and make a successful show. So, I don’t discourage them from trying something.

    I’m sure there are some Arab and Muslim persons (and don’t forget there are black Muslims) who may hate blacks/Africans. Just as I’m sure there are Chinese and Japanese who don’t like black people and vice versa. But I can remember there being times in history where such groups reached out to one another. In particular, following the concentration of Japanese in the US, many were left without property and finances to care for themselves and their families. But it is known that in the LA area blacks did reach out a helping hand to those in need.

    I think it’s natural for groups to want to self-segregate and protect themselves in this very repressive society. Us vs. them. And we’re conditioned to relate ourselves to white subjects. So why even bother with other POC’s? But it’s not like we’ve never touched each other before. We have and we continue to do so. Sometimes in conflict. Sometimes out of friendship. Solidarity. Love. Etc. But in order to really make a movement work we have to know our history and we have to know how to appeal to each other. We can’t pretend as though we should just know these things. We have to talk to each other.

  • http://heavyarmor.wordpress.com Heavy Armor

    That link speaks more to “dialect” (language) than to accent. A very important distinction.

    The reason why I challenged the “Black American” accent is because Black people in Philadelphia do not speak like Black people in Harrisburg, PA. Neither speak like Black people in Newark, NJ. Ditto all for New York City. Or Atlanta, Nashville, Miami, Houston, Sacramento, or any number of places. In other words, Black Americans are not a monolith, and neither are speech patterns, accents, or dialect.

    • Anonymous

      The link didn’t just speak about dialect. It also mentioned accent. It should be noted that although a black person from philly speaks differntly than one in memphis, there are similiarities. And this is what forms a black american accent…

  • TorontoUhOhh

    “Little Mosque on the Prairie” has done little to change perceptions because it’s not particularly popular. One so-so season, a second season that dropped viewers like flies and third and subsequent seasons that had ridiculous ratings that would have gotten any other show dropped and put out of its misery. Instead, like the final couple of seasons of “The George Lopez Show,” its mediocre writing and rapid plummet of quality storylines was given a free pass and kept on air anyway. Contrast that with the length of years “Cosby” was on the air, and the sheer number of viewers. I think people want quality, popular program in order to change perceptions, not mediocre cast-offs.

    • Cherish

      OMG – There really is a show in Canada called “Little Mosque on the Prairie”?????!!!!

      I thought Alak was joking.

  • Anonymous

    I have many problems with the comments above. For starters, many of the black shows prior to “cosby” were over the top in slang and very “blaxploitation,” but there is nothing wrong with having characters that speak with a black american accent or to use “slang.”

    The problem with Cosby is that it was trying to say that “normal” is to act in a way that didn’t offend middle class whites. Essentially, one has to become a huge teddy bear fully of sugar in order to be considered “normal.” It is all very emasculating….

    Why can’t TV create a poor/working class black family that isn’t full of stereotypes yet also doesn’t live in a fantasy world of white acceptability…

    • http://heavyarmor.wordpress.com Heavy Armor

      “Why can’t TV create a poor/working class black family that isn’t full of stereotypes yet also doesn’t live in a fantasy world of white acceptability…”

      That show was called ‘Roc’ (starring Charles Dutton). Or ‘Sister, Sister’ (with the Mowry sisters). Or ‘Moesha’ (with Brandi). Or ‘Living Single’.

      Also,

      “…but there is nothing wrong with having characters that speak with a black american accent or to use “slang.”…”

      First of all, what is a “Black American Accent”?

      But, even more important, your comment could be interpreted as “The Cosby Show” was Not Black Enough. This was a charge that was leveled against the show. What was it about this particular show that is not Black Enough? And what constitutes being Black Enough?

      • ja

        ‘Sister, Sister’ had a one parent who owned a limo service, drove his own luxury car and the whole family lived in upscale Detroit. Moesha’s dad owned a car dealership, her step-mom was a high school principal and the family lived in a middle class/upper middle class black neighborhood. Not exactly poor/working class black families.

  • Alak

    In Canada, Little Mosque on the Prarie has done little to change perceptions about Muslims.

    • Yonah

      It might have changed any perceptions that Muslims are funny. The idea is great but the execution… oy. The only people I know who actually liked it was a tiny Jewish community in Saskatchewan, who felt kinship with the characters.

  • Anonymous

    The reason the Cosby Show was groundbreaking had a lot to do with the family just being normal. They didn’t have silly catch phrases like “DYNOMITE!” They were just a regular family going about their lives.

    • Tiffany

      HAHAHAHAHAH! I agree! As a black person I couldn’t relate to Good Times. But I COULD relate to the Cosby Show.

  • Seriousviewinghabits

    I doubt the research would have supported a show about a yellow sponge in underpants living in saltwater, or foul-mouthed animated school children with no niceness filter, or a group of jocks and gay and handicapped misfits having Slurpees thrown in their face between singing showtunes… Yet, somehow, those shows were allowed to develop voices and be brought to life over the course of many episodes, researched be damned.

    I can’t think of a single life-changing lesson I’ve learned watching SpongeBob or How I Met Your Mother or Girlfriends, yet somehow we have to hamstring a hypothetical show about a Muslim family from the get-go? It has to carry the burden of instructing and confronting and informing the audience about racial and ethnic and cultural and religious issues and can’t possibly just be entertainment, like any of the shows mentioned above?

    Quite honestly, I don’t want to be instructed when I watch a comedy. I have PBS for that. I do want to laugh and eat ice cream and not think about work or life duties for thirty minutes or an hour at a time.

  • STaylor in Austin

    The Cosby Show was a noble social experiment, but was bland and rarely funny. It was great to see black people who were normal people and not Stepin Fetchit or Jive brotha characters that were prevalent in 1970′s TV. In the end I think the Cosby show presented black families as they typically are ( at least in my world). However, I don’t know if the show changed the racial perspectives of anyone, but “NORMAL” is what I want to see from black characters rather than slang talking stereotypes.

    For any show confronting race and religion: I think a show that could blend the regular guy White racism of Archie Bunkers “All in the Family” and the normal family life of “The Cosby Show”, with the absurdity of “Seinfeld”, would possibly be able to change peoples attitudes

  • EH

    I’ve also never really understood how the Cosby Show was exactly groundbreaking when it came to changing racial perception. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the show but I don’t think race or racism ever came up in the sitcom once, either as discussion or as a theme for any episodes. I can’t imagine a Black family (regardless of social class) where race/racism is completely ignored. And from what I’ve read The Cosby Show producers knew they had to stay away from issues of race or they’d alienate way too many white viewers who wanted to watch the “feel good” post-racial Black family to feel better about themselves and America. To me the message the Cosby show seemed to send was if you assimilate enough, make enough money, and don’t complain about race everything will be ok.