Bill Cosby has long preached the gospel of personal responsibility to fellow blacks, irritating those who fault racism for holding the community back.
But now lawyers for the 79-year-old comedian have suggested for the first time that racial bias is to blame as Cosby faces the prospect of 13 women testifying in court that he drugged and molested them. Twelve of them are white.
Cosby's legal team raised the issue on the courthouse steps Tuesday after a hearing in his criminal sex assault case in suburban Philadelphia. Whether they intend to bring up race in the courtroom remains to be seen. At a minimum, some legal experts said the defense is trying to influence potential jurors.
"I think that you've always got to have in mind who's your jury pool," said Los Angeles lawyer Mark Geragos, whose clients have included Michael Jackson. "That's probably the end game."
Or the lawyers may have been dutifully carrying out Cosby's instructions: "It could well be they are expressing the concerns of the client," said Carl Douglas, who was on O.J. Simpson's legal Dream Team.
Cosby is set to go on trial next June on charges he drugged and sexually violated Temple University employee Andrea Constand at his home in 2004. He could get 10 years in prison if convicted.
In bringing up race, his legal team took aim at celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, who represents about half the women who have agreed to testify against Cosby.
Allred "calls herself a civil rights attorney, but her campaign against Mr. Cosby builds on racial bias and prejudice that can pollute the court of public opinion," the lawyers said in a statement.
"Mr. Cosby is no stranger to discrimination and racial hatred. When the media repeats her accusations — with no evidence, no trial and no jury — we are moved backwards as a country and away from the America that our civil rights leaders sacrificed so much to create."
Allred called the tactic "desperate."
"It is ironic that a man who has chastised the black poor for making race an excuse would now have to lean upon that as part of his defense strategy," said Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, a black scholar and author of the book "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?"
"If you're more cynical, you might say, 'What manipulation of racial rhetoric in defense of the indefensible,'" Dyson said Thursday.
Cosby's lawyers have not raised any bias claims in court during their myriad efforts to get the case thrown out. The focus for now is on keeping out the most damning evidence, including Cosby's 2005 deposition in which he admitted using drugs and alcohol to seduce women. The defense will also fight strenuously to keep the 13 other accusers off the stand.
His lawyers asked on Tuesday to have the trial moved out of suburban Montgomery County, where the case was a major topic in the election campaign for district attorney last fall. Lead defense attorney Brian McMonagle suggested that the jury be drawn instead from Philadelphia.
Though McMonagle did not say so, Montgomery County is 80 percent white and 10 percent black. In Philadelphia, the racial split is nearly even.
That's not to say Cosby enjoys the unquestioned support of the black community.
The trailblazing TV star and one-time role model has chided activists who call the criminal justice system racist.
"These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake," Cosby said in an often-quoted 2004 speech before the NAACP. "Then we all run out and are outraged: 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"
His scolding remarks to the black community about baggy pants, fatherless homes and rap music have rankled younger blacks and scholars like Dyson. But they may still resonate with older blacks who share his focus on family life, education and personal morality.
"Those that grew up in the shadows of his 'Cosby' show don't want to believe the stench of the allegations," Douglas said. But "I would think that millennials, if they think of the word 'Cosby,' would think of the word 'date rape' before you think of 'The Cosby Show' or Cliff Huxtable."
Still, when it's time for the defense to pick a jury in this case, Geragos suggested race will trump all: "Ultimately, at the end of the day, they're not going to take a white juror over an African-American juror."