Dr. Bill Cosby demeans Blacks, especially young inner-city Black males. Although fully aware of the antecedents to Black America’s plight, Cosby, ignoring both history and systemic factors, puts the full weight of widespread dysfunctional behavior on Blacks themselves. And, he absolves the Black middle class of complicity in the current cultural, political and economic conundrum.
Cosby often puts a “disclaimer” on his remarks, such as, “I don’t want to talk about hatred of these people,” i.e., 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. Grandmother saw it out of the window. And people are waiting around for Jesus to come, when Jesus is inside of them.” Cosby’s beyond redemption credo proves that education and wealth do not necessarily mitigate callous insensitivity. Further, Cosby himself is no paragon of virtue.
In Cosby’s mythical creed, those chiefly responsible and accountable are the poorest and most downtrodden among us. (We are all ultimately responsible for improving our plight. But distorting the context of our lives is reprehensible, e.g., public schools’ failure to provide quality education for generations of Black students nullifies Cosby’s blanket damnations. He also knows that downplaying the impact of racism is much too dangerous a game for Blacks to engage in.
Dr. Cosby says, “The lower economic people are not holding up their end of this deal.” Then excoriates poor Blacks for failing to effectively raise their children, “teach the “knuckleheads” proper English, and for spending hundreds of dollars for sneakers, while refusing to spend two hundred dollars 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 May 2008 Atlantic provides an illuminating, balanced glimpse of Cosby’s persona. Cosby’s mixed messages arguments like- instead of waiting for handouts or outside help, disadvantaged Blacks should stand up by purging their own culture of noxious elements like gangsta rap, are cited throughout.
Coates also points out that the shift from White racism to Black culture is not as new as Cosby and some social commentators make it out to be. For instance, 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, 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 piano.”
Coates believes Cosby’s argument that much of what haunts young Black men originates in post-segregation Black culture, doesn’t square with history, e.g., 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 contributes generously to Black institutions and other causes, but does us all a disservice by employing conservatives’ “blaming the victim” tactics that tend to reinforce the very behavior he so vehemently denounces.
Cosby’s basic message 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 he has a duty to his family, his community and his ancestors), is not only laudable, but exemplary.
But he pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of Black Americans for their rights and chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal justice system despite strong evidence that it needs it. Coates says Cosby’s assertion that problems pervading Blacks are of recent vintage is simply wrong, “historical amnesia”—as is Cosby’s contention that today’s young Blacks are weaker and have dropped the ball.
Part of what drives Cosby’s activism, and reinforces his message is the rage in Americas’ Blacks, a collective feeling of disgrace that borders on self-hatred. For Coates, Cosby’s personal reality seems secondary to the tidier, more appealing world that he wants to create. 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 these other people have their mythical stories—why can’t we have our own.”
Bill Cosby’s goal is right on, his convoluted message is not.
Larry Aubry n can be contacted at e-mail