Friday, July 02, 2004

Uh Oh.

PROPHECY FULFILLED (CLICK HERE). Bill Cosby made headlines when he chose the occasion of the NAACP's anniversary celebration of Brown vs the Board of Education to criticize black parenting. He has, predictably, drawn some criticsm himself. One black columnist characterized the reaction this way:

As expected, his words have triggered protests, and many have called him a wealthy elitist - despite his large donations to black causes, including $20 million to Spellman College.

This response, from the People's Weekly World, in an article titled ""Bill Cosby Attacks Poor African-Americans," probably expresses the sentiments of many of the protesters:

Bill Cosby’s castigating comments toward poor African Americans expose an internal pain. If we care about the African American people to any extent, we share the same pain on some level or another. Still, Cosby’s behavior in issuing such an account is as bad as that of the worst misguided Black youth whose stereotyped and caricatured behavior he universalizes.

Do we pay attention? The masses of Black children have been relegated to an inferior education by way of a system that is funded inequitably and, hence, is academically unequal. Poor Black students come from families that are poor. Have we not heard that the majority of African American youth struggle to graduate from high school, stay out of trouble, and are successful in their attempt? Are we so blinded by our own pain that we, too, will resort to the easy way out of blaming the downtrodden rather than searching for the systemic causes of the problems? No doubt too many of our youth do fall, but the question for responsible adults is, how can we strengthen the fight for a better quality of life for all of our children in every realm? Is it helpful to turn away from the faults of the system and blame instead those who are oppressed and exploited as a result of the system’s inherent problems?

Even august members of the black clergy feel obliged to lecture Cosby, despite acknowledging some merit in his charges. The Reverend Bernice Powell Johnson began her commentary by agreeing with key parts of Cosby's argument: Then she proceeded to the big "BUT" that always seems so necessary:

But, while many poor African Americans have made bad choices in life, many can never work hard enough or long enough to get out of poverty when the minimum wage has not been increased in seven years and many working families earning less than the poverty level must pay for child care, social security taxes and out of pocket medical expenses. Moreover, the dramatic rise of homeless Americans over the past two years is not necessarily because of their bad choices, but because of our nation’s bad choices not to build enough low-income housing, while providing tax cuts for the wealthiest and spending our tax dollars on war and defense. Even as I write this, the administration is trying to cut $1.5 billion from Section 8 subsidized housing for the poor. And, while we all agree that the senseless violence must stop, as Ted Shaw, the new president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc., put it, an unarmed Amadou Diallo had not stolen a pound cake when he was killed by 41 bullets by New York City police officers.

The truth, I believe, is like a three legged stool. Poor African Americans must take responsibility for their families and their choices. Middle class and wealthy African Americans must do our part. Government and institutions must take responsibility for those who “are made poor” in the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who reminded us that there are systemic reasons for poverty in our world which only government can deal with.

Only if we see changes in all three segments will we see real changes in behavior and lives. Mr. Cosby, truth is more complex and responsibility is ours.

I confess I had thought Cosby would back off to some degree after being criticized, that he would assert the big "BUT" himself just to show that he was still a team player. He didn't. Yesterday he responded to his critics and expanded on his original remarks.

Bill Cosby went off on another tirade against the black community Thursday, telling a room full of activists that black children are running around not knowing how to read or write and "going nowhere."

He also had harsh words for struggling black men, telling them: "Stop beating up your women because you can't find a job."

Cosby made headlines in May when he upbraided some poor blacks for their grammar and accused them of squandering opportunities the civil rights movement gave them. He shot back Thursday, saying his detractors were trying in vain to hide the black community's "dirty laundry."

"Let me tell you something, your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other n------ as they're walking up and down the street," Cosby said during an appearance at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition & Citizenship Education Fund's annual conference.

"They think they're hip," the entertainer said. "They can't read; they can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere."

He castigated some blacks, saying that they cannot simply blame whites for problems such as teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates.

"For me there is a time ... when we have to turn the mirror around," he said. "Because for me it is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us. And it keeps a person frozen in their seat, it keeps you frozen in your hole you're sitting in."

Cosby lamented that the racial slurs once used by those who lynched blacks are now a favorite expression of black children. And he blamed parents.

"When you put on a record and that record is yelling `n----- this and n----- that' and you've got your little 6-year-old, 7-year-old sitting in the back seat of the car, those children hear that," he said.

He also condemned black men who missed out on opportunities and are now angry about their lives.

"You've got to stop beating up your women because you can't find a job, because you didn't want to get an education and now you're (earning) minimum wage," Cosby said. "You should have thought more of yourself when you were in high school, when you had an opportunity."

Surprisingly, he was flanked by Jesse Jackson, who defended him:

"Bill is saying let's fight the right fight, let's level the playing field," Jackson said. "Drunk people can't do that. Illiterate people can't do that."

Cosby also addressed the notion that such issues should not be discussed in public, but only behind closed doors::

[He}said he wasn't concerned that some whites took his comments and turned them "against our people."

"Let them talk," he said.

So Cosby has stood up to tell the truth as he sees it. He's not the first. Educators like Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and John McWhorter have been similarly brave and direct in their willingness to raise such issues as political correctness, black anti-intellectualism, rampant hip-hop thuggery, fatherless households, and illegitimate births. And there is more support for Cosby's views than some of us would have expected. He received ovations at his two speaking engagements, and he has also received written endorsements, such as this one from Dr. Pius Kamau, a thoracic and general surgeon from Denver:

As black America persists in the morass of mediocrity, it should look at other communities, and realize they'll soon overtake it. No longer can slavery and its aftermath be the excuse they've been for so long. Jews used discrimination to their advantage: by cohesion, self-help and a zeal to excel in their struggle. Asians are managing amazingly well in America's jungles. Hispanic immigrants are on the road to accumulate more wealth and education and eventually wield more political power than blacks.

There are some among us whose work with black youth is as effective as Cosby's, even if their voices aren't as loud. Locally, the tireless anti-gang efforts of Rev. Leon Kelly and Brother Jeff, the tireless advocate for AIDS victims and children, come to mind. They possess the antidote to the malaise that's befallen black America - deeper vision and unselfish effort.

Honestly, though, we have too few such heroes. We need many more like them to raise a healthier black America.

What has been comparatively lacking is in-depth discussion of these issues outside the black community. Perhaps it is time more of us displayed the guts we've seen from Cosby, Sowell, Williams, McWhorter and company. The substance of the discussion should occur at two levels. First, we must acknowledge that the kinds of problems Cosby is talking about afflict affluent and middle class white Americans as well. Reading, writing and speaking skills have degenerated to an appalling degree in even the most fashionable and upscale suburbs. The alarming reports and news items (e.g., today's shocker) we encounter about young people's sexual mores are also a crisis that cuts across racial lines. Illegitimate births and single-mother households are increasing in middle America just as they are in the inner cities. We have an absolute obligation to confront the fact of decline in our culture and in our youth specifically. We must confront it not as a problem in other people's families, but in our own. It's no good hauling out the old lie that every generation is really like every other, and every older generation thinks the younger generation is going to the dogs. In this case, they really are. You can hear the barking out of 100-Watt stereos in cars on every street.

This brings us to the second level at which we must begin to hold fearlessly honest discussions. The kind of decay we are so determined not to see is like a contagion. Our kids can catch it from any number of sources -- from MTV and BET, from peer pressure, from the failure of parents to intercede, say, by preventing preteen daughters from leaving the house dressed like streetwalkers, from lazy, ignorant and standardless teachers who can't or won't mark up their students' tragic essays and who can't or won't insist on decorum in the classroom. There is, however, also a specific carrier for this contagion, a fashion-setting ethos that provides the content for MTV, juvenile slang, and fads in clothing, entertainment and dating rituals.

The carrier is the hip-hop culture. It arises from the worst of the black ghetto and has therefore been amazingly immune to the kind of ferocious criticism it deserves. Firebrands like Bill O'Reilly are willing to raise the issue, but even as rap's most vocal critic, O'Reilly fails to understand that it isn't just disadvantaged kids in the inner city who are being fatally poisoned by the booming trash talk about guns, ho's, drugs, and low-down anonymous sex. This crap is circulating, in one form or another, in most of the homes in America where teenagers live, and it influences all of them. If you haven't seen the signs, it's because you're not looking.

I have, for several years, made it a habit to insist that all the parents I meet take an hour or two to really look at MTV. I don't know any who have actually done it. They don't want to know how bad it is. But we all have to look, and we all have to recognize how pernicious hip-hop is. There has to be a way to confront it without descending into racial slurs. Both white and black are suffering from this eruption of hatred and nihilism that issues from the bottom tenth of the poorest and least civilized among us. No one, of any color, should be content with anything less than its eradication from the minds of our children.

There is an enormous amount to talk about. Why are so many so silent? Bill Cosby said, "Let them talk." He should have added, "If they've got the spine for it."

If it's necessary for this particular site to end every entry on a lighter note, here's the best we can do today. It's from the back room (i.e., banned material) of Moon Books in Shuteye Town, 1999.

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