`Cosby' Show Stirs Race Debate -- Sitcom Desensitizes Whites To Racial Inequality, Study Says

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - "The Cosby Show" desensitizes whites to the nation's racial inequalities because it features an affluent black family, according to a study financed by Bill Cosby himself.

The findings renewed debate over whether the 8-year-old show, which will broadcast its final episode Thursday, has set back race relations.

"If black people fail, then white people can look at the successful black people on `The Cosby Show' and say they only have themselves to blame," said Sut Jhally, a communications professor at the University of Massachusetts. Jhally and colleague Justin Lewis have written a 200-page study on the social effects of the NBC show, which has been seen by more viewers than any sitcom in television's history. The study is to be published in a month.

The researchers said they picked the show, which began in 1984, because it was the first all-black program to avoid racial stereotyping. Cosby plays a wealthy doctor with a lawyer for a wife. When they began, the two professors at the Amherst campus wrote to Cosby. He responded with a $16,500 grant.

"We thought it was a bit of a long shot really, but we were pleasantly surprised when he sent us a check," Lewis said.

The professors interviewed about 200 people of varying economic and racial status in the Springfield area. They watched the show and answered questions about their impressions.

Lewis said the study seemed to confirm the beliefs of white viewers that blacks enjoy the same opportunities as they do. The professors said nearly all the whites they interviewed believed affirmative action is no longer needed. The professors called the attitude that gives lip service to equality "enlightened racism."

"Most white people accepted that America has had a kind of racist past, but the present of the Huxtables and their spinoffs really seems to send a message to white people that black people can make it if they try," Lewis said of the sitcom family.

Cosby couldn't immediately be reached for comment, but David Brokaw, a Los Angeles publicist who has worked with Cosby for 17 years, took issue with the study's findings.

"He was really trying to present the lives of people who happen to be black, but it's the lives of people," he said.

Lewis said nearly all blacks he interviewed liked the show. "They felt they as black people had been misrepresented in the media in the past. . . . For them, the show was a breath of fresh air."