Let's talk about poor negroes
Responding to a controversial debate about race in America
In 'Is Bill Cosby Right?' professor Michael Eric Dyson debates the comedian's criticism of low-income blacks made at last year's NAACP awards.
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.
Everything Cosby said about poor blacks was said about the Irish at the turn of the century.
They were a blight on society and basically criminal scum.
The difference is that Bill Cosby's utterances are taken seriously by black people. But there were plenty of people who thought the underclass were alien to the American way of life. This kind of nonsense has a long, storied history in American life.
Some blacks love to pretend because they live a certain way, that they are morally superior. This snobbishness is what seperates Howard from the University of Maryland. While the black elite fall all over the United Negro College Fund while sending their kids to Harvard and Penn, they keep schools like Howard for those who feel some need for racial allegience. Of course, these schools were created by whites to keep blacks out of Harvard, but that failed by the end of the 19th Century. The University of Maryland has the largest black student population in the United States. Simple as that, and I think City College of New York is second. These are the places where the black managerial and professional classes are really educated. Yet, blacks fetishize these colleges as providing a unqiue opportunity. Yet, to hear it from Howard grads, they are part of some mythical talented 10th.
And that is what Cosby taps into, that sense of entitlement from success. The fact that poor people get dealt with from the bottom of the deck is missing from his analysis. Their flaws are their fault.
Of course, it always seems those who talk about personal responsibility seem to lack it the most. Bill Cosby is about to be hammered in court as a serial groper. His marriage vows lies in tatters. Yet, he wants to lecture single moms about their kids names.
America 2005, where hypocrites are our moral guides.
posted by Steve @ 12:02:00 AM