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Bill Cosby’s Misguided Denigration of Blacks
Dr. Bill Cosby denigrates Blacks, especially young inner-city Black males. Minimizing both history and systemic factors, he implies that Blacks themselves are chiefly to blame for dysfunctional families and neighborhoods. He also tends to absolve the Black middle-class of its responsibility to challenge continuing barriers to Black's political and economic progress. Since the civil rights era, they have been largely absent from the on-going struggle for full justice.
Cosby sometimes puts a disclaimer on his remarks, such as, "I don't want to talk about hatred of these people, those who behave abnormally and are mostly uneducated, over- incarcerated and underrepresented in the ranks of active fathers.....I'm talking about a time when we protected our women and children-A little girl jumping rope shot through the mouth and grandmother saw it out of the window.... And people waiting around for Jesus to come when Jesus is inside of them." These beyond redemption assertions affirm the obvious; wealth and education may also be correlates of callous insensitivity. (And Cosby himself is no paragon of virtue.)
Bill Cosby's credo suggests that those chiefly responsible for Blacks' current condition are their poorest and most downtrodden. Yes, Blacks are ultimately responsible for improving their own plight, but distorting the context within which they live and die is reprehensible. For example, public schools' failure to provide quality education for generations of Black students alone nullifies Cosby's blanket damnations. He must know that downplaying the effect of racism is much too dangerous a game for Blacks to engage in.
Cosby says, "The lower economic people are not holding up their end of the deal." And he excoriates poor Blacks for failing to effectively raise their children, "....teach the knuckleheads proper English and don't spend hundreds of dollars for sneakers while refusing to spend $200 for an educational package like "Hooked on Phonics".....God is tired of you and so am I."
An article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic offers an illuminating glimpse of Cosby's persona and his mixed messages arguments like, "Instead of waiting for handouts for outside help, disadvantaged Blacks should stand up by purging their own culture of noxious elements like gangsta rap."
Coates notes that shifting blame from white racism to Black culture is not as new as Cosby and some social commentators make it out to be. W.E.B. DuBois was among the Black brain trust a century ago that shared Cosby's sense of anxiety that Blacks were not presenting their best selves to the world, and were committing crimes and needed help to keep their sexuality in check. "The same kind of people advocating for social reform back then denigrated those who didn't play the piano."
Coates contends Cosby's argument that much of what haunts young Black men originates in post-segregation Black culture doesn't square with history. For instance, Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier's classic study, "The Negro Family in the United States (1939)" argued that urbanization was undermining the ability of Black men to provide for their families.
Whatever Cosby's motivation and predilections, he does contribute generously to Black institutions and other causes, but does us all a disservice by employing arch conservative, "blaming the victim" tactics that reinforce attitudes and behavior among whites he so vehemently denounces.
His recurrent themes that manhood means more than virility and swagger, that it calls for discipline and constant stewardship and that the ultimate fate of Black people lies in their own hands, not in the hands of their antagonists, and that they have a duty to family, community and ancestors-are not only sound, but irrefutable.
Yet, Cosby pits personal responsibility against legitimate claims of Black Americans for their rights and chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal justice system despite strong evidence that such reform is sorely needed. Coates says Cosby's insistence that problems pervading Blacks are of recent vintage is simply "historical amnesia," as is his contention that today's young Blacks are weaker than their predecessors and have dropped the ball.
Part of what fuels Cosby's principled, but misguided message, may be his interpretation of Black's rage -a complex, collective feeling of anger and hopelessness, bordering on self-hate. Apparently, he embraces the tidier, more appealing world he wants to create, downplaying the broader, unsettling reality of Black life. Cosby's retort, "I need people to stop saying that I can't pull myself up by my own bootstraps.... they say that's a myth. But other people have their mythical stories. Why can't we have our own?"
Dr. Cosby's stated goal is right on; his misguided and misleading message is not.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail