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Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream

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The Cosby Show needs little introduction to most people familiar with American popular culture. It is a show with immense and universal appeal. Even so, most debates about the significance of the program have failed to take into account one of the more important elements of its success—its viewers. Through a major study of the audiences of The Cosby Show, the authors treat two issues of great social and political importance—how television, America’s most widespread cultural form, influences the way we think, and ...

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1992 Hardcover Fair CONTAINS WATER DAMAGE / STAIN, STILL VERY READABLE, SAVE! This item may not include any CDs, Infotracs, Access cards or other supplementary material.

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Overview

The Cosby Show needs little introduction to most people familiar with American popular culture. It is a show with immense and universal appeal. Even so, most debates about the significance of the program have failed to take into account one of the more important elements of its success—its viewers. Through a major study of the audiences of The Cosby Show, the authors treat two issues of great social and political importance—how television, America’s most widespread cultural form, influences the way we think, and how our society in the post–Civil Rights era thinks about race, our most widespread cultural problem.This book offers a radical challenge to the conventional wisdom concerning racial stereotyping in the United States and demonstrates how apparently progressive programs like The Cosby Show, despite good intentions, actually help to construct “enlightened” forms of racism. The authors argue that, in the post–Civil Rights era, a new structure of racial beliefs, based on subtle contradictions between attitudes toward race and class, has brought in its wake this new form of racial thought that seems on the surface to exhibit a new tolerance. However, professors Jhally and Lewis find that because Americans cannot think clearly about class, they cannot, after all, think clearly about race.This groundbreaking book is rooted in an empirical analysis of the reactions to The Cosby Show of a range of ordinary Americans, both black and white. Professors Jhally and Lewis discussed with the different audiences their attitudes toward the program and more generally their understanding and perceptions of issues of race and social class.Enlightened Racism is a major intervention into the public debate about race and perceptions of race—a debate, in the 1990s, at the heart of American political and public life. This book is indispensable to understanding that debate.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Based on an extensive study, funded by Bill Cosby himself, of audience responses to The Cosby Show , this provocative book reinforces criticism that, despite the show's great popularity and positive influences, it promotes the dangerous myth that blacks who don't ``make it'' have only themselves to blame. The authors, who teach in the department of communications at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 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. Neither blacks nor whites interviewed think clearly about class, the authors say; thus, our society cannot think clearly about how race and class intersect. While the authors' class analysis can be simplistic, their overall argument is convincing. (July)
Booknews
Through a qualitative study of the audience of the popular television program, explores how America's most widespread cultural form influences the ways in which people think, and what the society in the post-Civil Rights era thinks about race. Paper edition (unseen), $14.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813314181
  • Publisher: Westview Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/1992
  • Series: Cultural Studies
  • Pages: 152

Meet the Author

Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis are associate professors in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Both have written extensively on media and popular culture. Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis are associate professors in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Both have written extensively on media and popular culture.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables
Preface
Acknowledgments
1 Introducing The Cosby Show 1
Cosby: The Case For 3
Cosby: The Case Against 6
Asking the Audience 8
Synopsis of The Cosby Show Episode Shown to Respondents 12
2 Television and Reality: How Real Is The Cosby Show? 15
Talking About Reality 17
The Absence and Presence of Class 23
Cosby Contradictions 27
The World According to Cosby 30
3 The Success of Cosby 35
White Viewers and Popularity: The Same and Different 36
"They're Things That Happen Day by Day" 38
"It Has That Kind of Airbrushed Quality About It" 41
"It's Always Family Matters" 43
"The Cosby Show's Black, and That Fits" 46
Black Viewers and Popularity: "Thank You, Dr. Cosby, for Giving Us Back Ourselves" 48
"When I Look at Them, I Look at Us" 50
"What Kind of Question Is That for Black Folk?" 53
Looking on the Bright Side 56
4 Black Experience: Images, Illusions, and Social Class 57
Black Images: The Case of the Disappearing Black Working Class 58
Black Reality: The Permanent Underclass and Increasing Poverty 61
The Race-Class Nexus 64
Class and Social Mobility 68
5 Class and the Myth of the American Dream 71
Misrepresentations and Misconceptions 71
Television and the "American Dream" 72
Class Consciousness: The View from Above 75
Class Consciousness: The View from Below 78
The Displacement of Class onto Race 81
Stereotyping: The Limits of Conventional Thinking 83
The Fictional Creation of a Racially Just Society 86
6 White Responses: The Emergence of "Enlightened" Racism 93
The Insidious Return of Racism 93
Definitions of Black: Color Versus Culture 95
The Black and White Cosby Show 98
Now You See It, Now You Don't 101
Biology Versus Culture 108
The Consequences of Classlessness 109
7 Black Responses: The Hollow Images of Success 113
The Bad News 113
Race and Class in Black Situation Comedies 117
Positive Images and the Search for Prosperity 121
The Battle for Respect 124
Clinging to the American Dream 127
8 Conclusion: Unpopular Messages in an Age of Popularity 131
Affirming Inaction in White Viewers 135
Rethinking Stereotypes 138
Moving Beyond the American Dream 139
References 145
About the Book and Authors 147
Index 149
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