The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: Successful African American Families .. What is the issue?


The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were two of the most popular TV sitcoms during the 80’s and 90’s. The Cosby Show staring Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable and Will Smith as himself in The Fresh Prince of Bel- Air are both sitcoms based on what is portrayed as the “upper-class African American family.” Cliff and Claire Huxtable the parents in The Cosby Show both have successful careers as a Doctor and a Lawyer, and Philip Banks the father in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air plays a prestigious attorney turned judge. Both shows are filled with views of what a loving family is, plenty laughs and some truths, so why although they are two of the most popular television programs, are they criticized over the content and overall message of each of the shows? According to Jhally and Lewis, they only represent the minority and portray an unrealistic view of what the African American family really is. Confused? Initially, I was as well, but let’s get what the overall message of their book, “Enlightened Racism.”

Enlightened Racism”, written by Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis is a book based on The Cosby Show, audiences and the myths of the American Dream. The authors interviewed fifty-two focus groups and learned that these views involve themselves in the shows and see it as reality. In their interviews with the black viewers specifically, they also found that they appreciate the lack of stereotypes in The Cosby Show. What they find most dangerous about that is that it promotes a myth that blacks, who don’t make it, have only themselves to blame. What they found with white viewers can not only identify with the Huxtables, which also relieves them of the responsibility of inequalities. That becomes dangerous because, watching the show you would assume that racism no longer exist which is in turn the biggest myth of all. Enlightened Racism concludes with comments made from the interviewees as well as the author’s points as to why they feel the way they do regarding the show and its false realities. The Cosby-Huxtable persona tells viewers that, as one respondent put it, “there is room in the United States for minorities to get ahead without affirmative action.” That is what the show portrays to at least one of the white viewers who were interviewed. Comments also came from Gates and Miller who feel that the show never gave even the slightest glimpse of the economic disadvantages and deep-rooted, discrimination that prevent most black Americans from reaching their potential. As well as Michael Dyson stating, “It is perhaps this lack of acknowledgement of the underside of the American Dream that is the most unfortunate feature of the Huxtable opulence.” (Jhally, Lewis pg. 8) The overall issue that Jhally and Lewis explained in their book was that although each other sitcoms had good intentions behind the overall messages of their shows, they help construct enlightened forms of racism.

I now see the controversy behind the Cosby Show. Although it does give a positive view on an African American upper class family, it does not show the process of how they got there whether it is struggle or no struggle. African Americans and most minorities unfortunately are always have or are going to go through some sort of struggle to get wherever they would like to in their lives. Initially reading Enlightened Racism, I quickly hopped on the defense wagon saying, “Why can’t they just be a happy upper class African-American family? Why is it necessary to show struggle?” As I read on in the article it began to set in to me the reality and basis of what they were getting at. The truth of the matter is, some viewers see the show and take it in as pure reality. It unfortunately sets those viewers up for the failure if they feel like they haven’t made it because they aren’t living up to “the Huxtables” standards. The Cosby show overall has never touched on any racial topics throughout all its seasons being on air. There are hidden details in the show as in their oldest daughter Sandra’s twins’ names, Nelson and Winnie after the Mandela’s. Most people however probably never noticed that little detail and would even know that unless learning it previously. These things give room for so many perceptions for all viewers, which is where the controversy and issues with the show come into play.


The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that followed behind The Cosby Show in 1990. The show was based on Will Smith a teenager from Philadelphia, PA who moved to California with his uncle and family because of his mother’s fear of him getting in trouble in the inner-city they lived in. The Banks family consisted of Philip and Vivian Banks the parents, their three children Hilary, Carlton and Ashley and their butler Geoffrey. Will moving across the country with his relatives was a culture shock for both he and his relatives. Bel-Air academy was the private high school that Will attended along with his cousin Carlton and later little Cousin Ashley. Unlike the Cosby show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was more realistic because it showed the realities of being African American although they were wealthy. There was a specific episode where Will and Carlton get pulled over while driving Uncle Phil’s Mercedes, Carlton is oblivious to the reality of why they got pulled over until Will explains it to him once they arrive home.(Jasmine Graves: YouTube Video) These are issues that are real and that do happen and a reason why a lot of people respectively watch the show no matter what race. Although it was about ten years earlier, the Cosby show not touching on any scenarios’ dealing with race as stated above almost illuminates the fact that racism exist. Which we all know is not true.

There is also an episode in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (shown below) where Will’s father bails out on his right before they were about to take a trip. He comes into the scene just before his father walks out without saying bye and forced to explain why he is leaving. Will, although he is upset says goodbye calling him by his first name and then having a conversation with his Uncle Phil about his father’s behavior since he was younger. This episode can easily form a para-social relationship between Will and specifically male viewers who have been in his situation with their fathers. It is an easily relatable scenario especially for African American males, unfortunately because fathers are usually not in the picture. Something positive behind that episode and the show was they risk taken to even have that in the show. The Huxtable did not have those issues in their show, because they were all biologically Cliff and Claire’s children, but even the reality to anything that takes place in the African American community was not shown and that is one of the major differences between the two shows.

As far as the portrayal of the African American upper class family between both shows, I must say that neither show gives a very realistic view of the majority of how African Americans live. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air although gave realistic situations that involve being African American, it did not give African Americans any less of a real success story than the Cosby show did. What I mean by that is, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air gives off the same unrealistic view of "the American Dream" that the Cosby Show does. They do show forms of struggle and the realities of racism, but as far as their economic status there is no portrayal of the success ladder for say the average blue collar worker. That was the point Jhally and Lewis made in Enlightened Racism, not that the shows weren't great and of course successful the way they are, but they give false realities to our everyday blue collar workers, and to the white viewers of the show. The perception of each of the viewers is dangerous and although they are "only TV shows" because the media has such a strong influence on the world today, it only sets people up to potentially be disappointed, unhappy and unfulfilled in their lives as well as confused about what still exist in the world today.


gravics. (n.d.). Fresh Prince Will's Father Leaves - YouTube . YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. . Retrieved October 31, 2011, from

Jhally, Sut and Justin Lewis. 1992. Enlightened Racism: The ‘Cosby Show,’ Audiences and the Myth of the American Dream. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.