Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Calling Out Cosby

“It only took me forty years to learn the Black Power Salute.”

He's at it again.

Bill Cosby, the former pudding pop pusher and current purveyor of black morality, is engaging in a series of national, public discussions that he's entitled, "A Call Out With Cosby."

As many of you recall, a couple of years ago Cosby made headlines when he made disparaging comments about "the lower economic and lower middle economic people" who, according to him, were not, "holding their end in this deal." Of course, by "this deal" Cosby was referring to the successes of the Civil Rights movement. I'm not sure what role Cosby played in helping open up American institutions to blacks and others throughout the Civil Rights era (I've read that he essentially absconded). What I do know is that, often, those individuals who were alive during that time, and wanted or had absolutely nothing to do with sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, voter registration drives, integrating 'whites only' dining establishments, etc., will be the first to take credit for their impact. "We paid The Price," they will contend. It reminds me of when white folks attempt to take credit for the abolition of slavery by arguing that, 'We fought and died in the Civil War,' or when men pat themselves on the back for the passage and implementation of women's suffrage. That they either had nothing to do with it, or were in direct opposition to the struggle for equal rights doesn't really register with them.

Regarding the comments that Cosby made two years ago, I have repeatedly argued several points. Namely:

  • Although every single black person I know, including myself, has, at one time or another, expressed frustration with black people in general, what Cosby did was much different. When I complain about “these Negroes” I do it while bellyaching among friends. Within that context, I've also made general complaints about every group of people on the face of the Earth. Of the major differences between Bill Cosby and me two of the most important are these: 1) I'm not a well liked, highly regarded and influential public figure and 2) I was venting to a group of friends. To make the kind of incendiary, sweeping, stereotypical comments that Bill Cosby made - in front of a national audience – is simply not intelligent.
  • The only thing he did was spout white supremist arguments in blackface. I've heard his line of reasoning repeated ad nauseum by enemies of black people: Rush Limbaugh, David Horowitz, Pat Buchanan, David Duke, etc. Whenever any of these people publicly identify what they see as a shortcoming specific to black people they are roundly and loudly criticized by the black community, and rightly so. Whenever a black person does it (and WE do it far too often) it's given a free pass.
  • I've heard people say that it doesn't matter what we say or do because whites will believe whatever they want about us. Cosby himself made it. This, frankly, is complete bullshit. Sure, white supremacists will continue to promote the idea that blacks and other non-whites are inferior. But they are a part of a fringe movement whose goal is to convince "normal" uncommitted whites of that, and affect radical social change. Cosby just provided them with more ammunition. Further, that bankrupt notion doesn't give him or any other black person the right to publicly smear an entire segment of the population. Cosby made himself a hypocrite. To make blanket, public statements accusing blacks of generally lacking personal responsibility is the HEIGHT of irresponsibility.
  • Ills that are endemic to society as a whole (or that are class, not race, based) are often portrayed as unique to black people. Poor people, across racial lines, have higher rates of incarceration, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, dropping out of high school, alcoholism, domestic violence, etc., than those higher up the socioeconomic ladder. Cosby should have acknowledged that.
  • When people argue that, at the very least, Cosby's rant precipitated a much needed discussion in the black community, I respond that this discussion has been occurring at all levels of black life for many years now. What exactly did Cosby contribute? "These people are going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake, and then we run out and we are outraged saying, 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was doing with the pound cake in his hand?" This kind of ignorant, high-handed, ridiculously simplistic assessment of the very real problem of police brutality isn't helping anything. Moreover, people can't be guilted into making good decisions. To quote Justine Felix, an author and activist in San Antonio, "People don't exist in a vacuum. They are the products or their environment. If you want to change the way folks behave then you need to change the conditions that give rise to that behavior. Criticizing people for their personal behavior on an individual basis might make sense because on an individual basis it might actually work and result in positive change." But lambasting an amorphous section of the population is foolish and regrettable.
Cosby's latest target is church leaders. He has a problem, "with churches who allow drug dealers to set up two blocks away." So do I. But I have a greater problem with church leaders who continue to bilk their congregations but don't offer them any job training or placement programs, college scholarships, first time home buying seminars, career counseling, classes on debt prevention, sex education or anything else that might help them escape poverty.

Of course, Cosby isn't all bad. He's a brilliant entertainer who, with The Cosby Show, somehow managed to give the black family one of it's only positive television representations in history. An even larger saving grace is that he's got the decency to put his money where his big mouth is. But it would be nice if he could teach that mouth of his to deliver better informed more thoughtful criticisms.

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At 10:05 AM , Anonymous viece said...

This one is tricky. Mostly because to be honest with you, I agreed with what The Cos said two years ago. I agreed with the venue in which he said it -- a room full of uppity black folks with money and status who had the potential to help with the problems he was addressing. We are in a world of hurt. We are our own worst enemy. Two weeks before he said what he said in 2004 he was at Howard University pleading with the students to be proactive, accountable, interactive, hardworking. Our culture is following rap artists and sports figures and half naked hip hop queens for the sake of looking good. All for instant gratification. I agree with you that the nations poor in general have problems equally. But when i would come home with a bad grade in geometry and tell my mom that the whole class did badly, her response was always "I'm not worried about what everyone else is doing, I'm worried about what you're doing." I think his participation in the movement is a moot point. We all have done or not done things and looked back and said "hmmm. maybe that wasn't such a good choice." Maybe that's where he is now, I don't know. But his wanting to look out for the welfare of his race should not be looked down upon. Mostly, people are having problems with the way that he said it. Well, it's not getting done any other way. I volunteered on a mayoral campaign once, and kept hearing from the people in Southeast DC "What has he (this particular candidate) done for me?" I would look them straight in the eye and ask them "What have you done for yourself?"
I have a little sister (11 years old) and her mother is fighting to keep her out of the Beyonce' circle of females who want to look, dress and act like Beyonce', who is constantly portrayed as a sex symbol. Guess what, my little sisters' family (she's my half sister) fits under the poverty least her mother is trying to teach her how to act. Which, I believe was the point Bill was trying to make.

At 11:30 AM , Blogger Clifton said...

I am having a hard time figuring out whre I stand on this issue. On the one hand I don't like the way he generalized a whole generation of the race with some of his statements. On the other hand, I agree with allot he has said and I see the evidence of it everyday. There really isn't a time limit on what age you can start speaking out about the condition of yoru people. Even Malcolm Little was a hustler before he became Malcolm X. I think we still have a problem with our business being put in the street because we are not ready to admit that everything we have tried to get it right has not worked.


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