A year ago, Bill Cosby set off a national debate in a speech to the NAACP where he criticized poor blacks in sometimes harsh language. Cosby emphasized personal responsibility, or the lack of it. In a new book, Michael Eric Dyson describes Cosby's remarks as a vicious attack on the most vulnerable among us.
Michael Eric Dyson, author, Is Bill Cosby Right? Professor of Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania
Read an Excerpt from the Book
"Do you view Bill Cosby as a race traitor?" journalist Paula Zahn bluntly asked me on her nighttime television show.
Zahn was referring to the broadside the entertainer had launched against irresponsible black parents who are poor and their delinquent children. Cosby's rebuke came in a May 2004 speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. Not content with a one-off tirade, Cosby since then has bitterly and visibly crusaded against the declining morality and bad behavior of poor blacks. Six months into his battle, Zahn snagged the comic legend turned cultural warrior for his first in-depth interview. Cosby clarified his comments and reinforced his position. No, he wasn't wrong to air the black community's dirty laundry. Yes, he would ratchet up the noise and pace of his racial offensive. And he surely didn't give a damn about what white folk thought about his campaign or what nefarious uses they might make of his public diatribe. One could see it on Cosby's face: This is war, the stakes are high and being polite or politically correct simply won't do.
Since I was one of the few blacks to publicly disagree with Cosby, I ended up in numerous media outlets arguing in snippets, sound bites, or ripostes to contrary points of view. In The New York Times a few days after his remarks, I offered that Cosby's comments "betray classist, elitist viewpoints rooted in generational warfare," that he was "ill-informed on the critical and complex issues that shape people's lives," and that his words only "reinforce suspicions about black humanity."
Still, I don't consider Cosby a traitor, and I said so to Zahn. In fact, I defended his right to speak his mind in full public view. After all, I'd been similarly stung by claims of racial disloyalty when I wrote my controversial book on Martin Luther King, Jr. I also said that while Cosby is right to emphasize personal behavior (a lesson, by the way, that many wealthy people should bone up on), we must never lose sight of the big social forces that make it difficult for poor parents to do their best jobs and for poor children to prosper. Before going on Zahn's show, I'd already decided to write a book in response to Cosby's relentless assault. But my appearances in the media, and the frustrating fragmentation of voice that one risks in such venues, pushed me to gain a bigger say in the issues Cosby has desperately if clumsily grabbed hold of. This book is my attempt to unpack those issues with the clarity and complexity they demand.
Of course, the ink and applause Cosby has won rest largely on a faulty assumption: that he is the first black figure to stare down the "pathology" that plagues poor blacks. But to believe that ignores how figures from black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, in varying contexts, with differing results, have spoken controversially about the black poor. Equally intriguing is the leap of faith one must make in granting Cosby revered status as a racial spokesman and critic. He has famously demurred in his duties as a racial representative. He has flatly refused over the years to deal with blackness and color in his comedy. Cosby was defensive, even defiant, in his views, as prickly a racial avoider as one might imagine for a man who traded so brilliantly on dimensions of black culture in his comedy. While Cosby took full advantage of the civil rights struggle, he resolutely denied it a seat at his artistic table. Thus it's hard to swallow Cosby's flailing away at youth for neglecting their history, and overlooking the gains paid for by the blood of their ancestors, when he reneged on its service when it beckoned at his door. It is ironic that Cosby has finally answered the call to racial leadership forty years after it might have made a constructive difference. But it is downright tragic that he should use his perch to lob rhetorical bombs at the poor.
For those who overlook the uneven history of black engagement with the race's social dislocations and moral struggles—and who conveniently ignore Cosby's Johnny-come-lately standing as a racial critic—Cosby is an ethical pioneer, a racial hero. In this view, Cosby is brave to admit that "lower economic people" are "not parenting" and are failing the civil rights movement by "not holding up their end in this deal." Single mothers are no longer "embarrassed because they're pregnant without a husband." A single father is no longer "considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father" of his child. And what do we make of their criminal children? Cosby's "courage" does not fail. "In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison.... I'm talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don't know he had a pistol?" Before he is finished, Cosby beats up on the black poor for their horrible education, their style of dress, the names they give their children, their backward speech and their consumptive habits. As a cruel coda, Cosby even suggests to the black poor that "God is tired of you."
It is not remarkable that such sentiments exist. Similar comments can be heard in countless black spaces: barbershops and beauty shops; pulpits and pavement platforms; street corners and suite hallways; and civil rights conventions and political conferences. These cultural settings give such ideas an interpretive context that they often lack when they bleed beyond ghetto walls and comfortable black meeting places and homes into the wider world. Cosby bypassed, or, more accurately, short-circuited, the policing mechanism the black elite—the Afristocracy—habitually use to keep such thoughts from public view (This is done not so much to spare the poor but to save the black elite from further embarrassment. And no matter how you judge Cosby's comments, you can't help but believe that a great deal of his consternation with the poor stems from his desire to remove the shame he feels in their presence and about their activity in the world.)
Usually the sort of bile that Cosby spilled is more expertly contained, or at least poured on its targets in ways that escape white notice. Cosby's remarks betray seething class warfare in black America that has finally boiled over to the general public. It is that general public, especially white social critics and other prophets of black ethical erosion, that has been eager for Cosby's dispatches from the tortured front of black class war. Cosby's comments let many of these whites off the hook. If what Cosby says is true, then critics who have said the same, but who courted charges of racism, are vindicated. There's nothing like a formerly poor black multimillionaire bashing poor blacks to lend credence to the ancient assaults they've endured from the dominant culture.
Cosby's overemphasis on personal responsibility, not structural features, wrongly locates the source of poor black suffering—and by implication its remedy—in the lives of the poor. When you think the problems are personal, you think the solutions are the same. If only the poor were willing to work harder, act better, get educated, stay out of jail and parent more effectively, their problems would go away. It's hard to argue against any of these things in the abstract; in principle such suggestions sound just fine. But one could do all of these things and still be in bad shape at home, work or school. For instance, Cosby completely ignores shifts in the economy that give value to some work while other work, in the words of William Julius Wilson, "disappears." In our high-tech, high-skilled economy where low-skilled work is being scaled back, phased out, exported, or severely under-compensated, all the right behavior in the world won't create better jobs with more pay. And without such support, all the goals that Cosby expresses for the black poor are not likely to become reality. If the rigidly segregated educational system continues to miserably fail poor blacks by failing to prepare their children for the world of work, then admonitions to "stay in school" may ring hollow.
In this light, the imprisonment of black people takes on political consequence. Cosby may be right that most black folk in jail are not "political prisoners," but it doesn't mean that their imprisonment has not been politicized. Given the vicious way blacks have been targeted for incarceration, Cosby's comments about poor blacks who end up in jail are dangerously na´ve and empirically wrong. Cosby's critique of criminal behavior among poor blacks neglects the massive body of work that catalogs the unjust imprisonment of young blacks. This is not to suggest an apologia for black thugs; instead, it suggests that a disproportionate number of black (men) are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. Moreover, Cosby seems to offer justification for the police killing a young black for a trivial offense (the theft of a Coca-Cola or pound cake), neglecting the heinous injustices of the police against blacks across the land. Further, Cosby neglects to mention that crime occurs in all classes and races, though it is not equally judged and prosecuted.
Cosby also slights the economic, social, political and other structural barriers that poor black parents are up against: welfare reform, dwindling resources, export of jobs and ongoing racial stigma. And then there are the problems of the working poor: folk who rise up early every day and often work more than forty hours a week, and yet barely, if ever, make it above the poverty level. We must acknowledge the plight of both poor black (single) mothers and poor black fathers, and the lack of social support they confront. Hence, it is incredibly difficult to spend as much time with children as poor black parents might like, especially since they will be demonized if they fail to provide for their children's basic needs. But doing so deflects critical attention and time from child-rearing duties—duties that are difficult enough for two-parent, two-income, intact middle-class families. The characteristics Cosby cites are typical of all families that confront poverty the world over. They are not indigenous to the black poor; they are symptomatic of the predicament of poor people in general. And Cosby's mean-spirited characterizations of the black poor as licentious, sexually promiscuous, materialistic and wantonly irresponsible can be made of all classes in the nation. (Paris Hilton, after all, is a huge star for just these reasons.) Moreover, Cosby's own problems—particularly the affair he had that led to the very public charge that he may have fathered a child—suggest that not only poor people do desperate things. In fact, as we reflect on his family troubles over the years, we get a glimpse of the unavoidable pain and contradictions that plague all families, rich and poor.
Cosby's views on education have in some respects changed for the worse. His earlier take on the prospects of schooling for the poor was more humane and balanced. In his 1976 dissertation, Cosby argued against "institutional racism" and maintained that school systems failed the poorest and most vulnerable black students. It is necessary as well to acknowledge the resegregation of American education (when in truth it was hardly desegregated to begin with). The failure of Brown v. Board to instigate sufficient change in the nation's schools suggests that the greatest burden—and responsibility—should be on crumbling educational infrastructures. In suburban neighborhoods, there are $60-million schools with state-of-the-art technology, while inner city schools fight desperately for funding for their students. And anti-intellectualism, despite Cosby's claims, is hardly a black phenomenon; it is endemic to the culture. Cosby also spies the critical deficiency of the black poor in their linguistic habits, displaying his ignorance about "black English" and "Ebonics." But the intent of Ebonics, according to its advocates, is to help poor black youth speak "standard" English while retaining an appreciation for their dialects and "native tongues." All of this suggests that structural barriers, much more than personal desire, shape the educational experiences of poor blacks. In fact, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Cosby's lauded '70s television cartoon series, won greater acceptance for a new cast of black identities and vernacular language styles. Cosby has made money and gained further influence from using forms of Black English he now violently detests.
Cosby's comments betray the ugly generational divide in black America. His disregard for the hip-hop generation is not unique, but it is still disheartening. Cosby's poisonous view of young folk who speak a language he can barely parse simmers with hostility and resentment. And yet, some of the engaged critique he seeks to make of black folk—of their materialism, their consumptive desires, their personal choices, their moral aspirations, their social conscience—is broadcast with much more imagination and insight in certain quarters of hip-hop culture. (Think of Kanye West's track, "All Falls Down," which displays a self-critical approach to the link between consumption and the effort to ward off racial degradation.) Cosby detests youth for their hip-hop dress, body piercing and the pseudo-African-sounding names they have. Yet, body piercing and baggy clothes express identity among black youth, and not just beginning with hip-hop culture. Moreover, young black entrepreneurs like Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Russell Simmons have made millions from their clothing lines. There are generational tensions over self-definition; arguments over clothes and body markings reflect class, age and intracultural conflicts as well. I think that, contrary to Cosby's argument, it does have something to do with the African roots of black identity, and perhaps with Cosby's ignorance of and discomfort with those roots. And Cosby's ornery, ill-informed diatribe against black naming is a snapshot of his assault on poor black identity. Names like Shaniqua and Taliqua are meaningful cultural expressions of self-determination and allow relatively powerless blacks to fashion their identities outside the glare of white society. And it didn't just start in this generation. Cosby's inability to discern the difference between Taliqua and Muhammad, an ancient Muslim name, is as remarkable as it is depressing—and bigoted in its rebuff to venerable forms of black identity and culture.
Cosby's comments don't exist in a cultural or political vacuum. His views have traction in conservative (and some liberal) circles because they bolster the belief that less money, political action and societal intervention—and more hard work and personal responsibility—are the key to black success. While Cosby can surely afford to ignore what white folk think, the majority of black folk can't reasonably dismiss whites in influential places. Cosby has said that he's not worried about how the white right wing might use his speech, but it certainly fits nicely with their twisted views of the black poor. The poor folk Cosby has hit the hardest are most vulnerable to the decisions of the powerful groups of which he has demanded the least: public policy makers, the business and social elite, and political activists. Poor black folk cannot gain asylum from the potentially negative effects of Cosby's words on public policy makers and politicians who decide to put into play measures that support Cosby's narrow beliefs.
Cosby also contends that black folk can't blame white folk for our plight. His discounting of structural forces and his exclusive focus on personal responsibility, and black self-help, ignore the persistence of the institutional racism Cosby lamented in his dissertation. To be sure, even when black folk argued for social justice, we never neglected the simultaneous pursuit of personal responsibility and self-help, since that's often the only help we had. In the end, Cosby's views may make white and black liberal fence-sitters unfairly critical of the black poor. Cosby may even convince them that personal behavior will help the poor more than social programs, thus letting white and black elites off the hook. There is a strong counterpoint to Cosby's evasive, and dismissive, racial politics in his own home. I think it is important to recall the famous letter Cosby's wife, Camille, penned in 1998 in USA Today—written in the aftermath of the tragic murder of their son by a Russian immigrant, excoriating America for teaching her son's murderer the bigotry that fueled his lethal act. Unlike Cosby's comments, Camille's essay drew the ire and rebuke of pundits and the political establishment. Camille Cosby was told that America provided the opportunity for her husband to become a rich artist. By contrast, Bill Cosby's remarks were embraced by the same establishment, as Cosby was praised for his self-help strategy of pulling himself up from poverty to plenty. Thus, these critics want it both ways. I think when it comes to the issues at hand, contrasting Camille's letter and Cosby's remarks proves that she is the Cosby with genuine insight into race relations.
It is clear that Cosby has touched a raw nerve of class and generation in black America. What he said—and our response to it—goes far beyond a single speech before a group of blacks who were celebrating the achievements of the past. This story is so powerful and controversial, and continues to resonate in our society, because it goes to the heart of the struggle for the identity of a culture. It also embodies the different visions put forth by older and younger members of the race. In a sense, Cosby is Moses, Elijah and King Lear rolled into one. Like Moses, he has laid down the law, but he is realizing, as we all must at some point, that he may not get the chance to see the Promised Land in his own day. The sweet reward of hard work slips through the hands as easily as water in a rushing stream. But finally, as it says in the book of Hebrews, "these all died in faith not having received the promises." We must all face the reality at some point that the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams is ever in the distance, flung to a horizon that recedes as we march forward, and can only be brought closer in the collective push ahead, and often not through one's own energy but through the efforts of some Joshua—the younger helper of Moses, the one God appointed to lead the people after Moses' great journey came to a close. It's hard to hand over the reins and embrace the transition, but it must be done. This doesn't mean that old prophets and sages are of no use; it means they must learn to coexist with an upcoming phalanx of rebels with new spirits and vision. Even if they wear dreads and baggy pants or speak in ways foreign to the elders.
Like Elijah, Cosby has thrown in the towel and embraced his frustration; like Elijah, he has said, "It is enough!" Elijah felt that he was the only one left to do God's work and that everyone else had sold out to godless hedonism and corrupt morality. But God told Elijah to rest up, since he was exhausted—Cosby, too, has said, "I'm a tired man"—and, after replenishing himself, to recognize God not in the thunder but in the still small voice, in the serenity of inner circumstances that nourish hope. And then God pointed out to Elijah that there were literally thousands more who had a righteous cause and who were not in Elijah's camp. Cosby must accept that others have the truth, too, and that they are working in their own way to make things better—for the race, the culture, the community and our struggle.
And finally, like King Lear, Cosby is at war with his children, feeling their fatal betrayal of his fatherly leadership, saying, as did Lear, that "I am more sinned against than sinning." That, to be sure, is the claim of every generation, of every visionary who feels that the people he has loved and brought along have somehow fatally departed from the path of wisdom and morality when they go their own way. There are undoubtedly lethal circumstances afoot in black America, and we do indeed need the voices of the elders to ring out and the wisdom of the fathers and mothers to resonate loudly. But transition and transformation bring inevitable struggles between generations, or at least between their leading lights, and sometimes the wrestling is bloody and unraveling. We must resist the temptation to take refuge in hurt feelings and raging resentment as we grapple with how our children live, or choose to leave us, or even how we handle our recognition of their betrayals and disaffections. Loyalty to particular figures may not be as important, in the end, as loyalty to the cause of enlarging the hopes of the individual and racial family.
The conversation that Cosby has started endures because the people who must engage him, and the issues he has raised, are likewise enduring. Thus, what Cosby said reflects on the griefs and hopes and losses and pains of an entire generation of noble men and women who nonetheless, like the rest of us, are human and at times frail and misled. We must learn from each other, listen to each other, correct each other and struggle with each other if the destiny of our people is to be secure. And we must fight for the best that is within our reach, even if that means disagreeing with icons and resisting the myopia of mighty men. What Cosby started is left to us to finish.
From the book, Is Bill Cosby Right?, by Michael Eric Dyson; © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Civitas, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.