Can We Talk? The 'Cos and Black Conversation

| Tue Nov. 6, 2007 3:20 PM EST

It's hard to tell whether what Bill Cosby is continuing is a crusade or a tirade, but so far, critics are voting for the second. As usual, average black folks are caught in the crossfire.

In May 2004, Cosby addressed the gala 50th commemoration of Brown v Board (full text here) in a capacity-crowded Constitution Hall in DC. Rather than celebrate the victory and its attendant successes, "America's Granddad" railed at length against a black sloth, nihilism, poor parenting and moribund morality that he believes worse than racism ever was. Here's a taste:

We cannot blame white people. White people -- white people don't live over there. They close up the shop early. The Korean ones still don't know us as well -- they stay open 24 hours....
50 percent drop out rate, I'm telling you, and people in jail, and women having children by five, six different men. Under what excuse? I want somebody to love me. And as soon as you have it, you forget to parent. Grandmother, mother, and great grandmother in the same room, raising children, and the child knows nothing about love or respect of any one of the three of them. All this child knows is "gimme, gimme, gimme." These people want to buy the friendship of a child, and the child couldn't care less. Those of us sitting out here who have gone on to some college or whatever we've done, we still fear our parents. And these people are not parenting. They're buying things for the kid -- $500 sneakers -- for what? They won't buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics.

Let's just say the speech got noticed; three and a half years later, he's still pugnaciously facing off with his detractors who think Cosby is further entrenching racist stereotypes and victim-blaming. The blowback seems only to energize him.

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As the criticism worsened, he embarked on a barnstorm town hall trip (inevitably blamed his "Blame the Poor Tour" by opponents) and took his message on the road to yet more capacity crowds even as Michael Eric Dyson wrote an entire book about Cosby's speech and it's implication of the black middle class in racism against the black poor. Juan Williams had Cosby's back in another book inspired by the infamous speech (which I blurbed). Undaunted, Cosby has followed the speech, the tour and the controversy with a book, Come On, People, written with black psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint. Both Oprah and NBC's Meet the Press give the authors major air time; books are selling nicely and the afro-sphere is abuzz, so far with condemnation. Duke scholar Karla FC Holloway sums up the critique's main thrust:

Bill Cosby made his career earning our laughter, but his recent "call-out" to black communities -- in which he blames the multifaceted perils of black children (whom he has called "dirty laundry") on their parents' disinterest in their success -- only serves to solidify our biases about privilege, potential and race.

It's undeniable that Cosby relies on a tenuous "argument by anecdote" approach ("women having children by five, six different men") that seriously weakens his aim, still (or, maybe, as planned) it resonates with the black masses (the crowd hooting and clapping in Constitution Hall weren't exactly Jabari and Jaquita Sixpack) and it is they, not the critics, who live everyday in the crosshairs. Caught between the gunsights of cops who may not bother to puzzle out whether being on the corner at 4 am means waiting for the bus to the assembly line or for someone to mug, haven't the black masses a right to blow off some steam? Cosby didn't get where he is by not knowing his audience and maybe that audience is not the po-mo, Black Students' Association Past Presidents' League and Modern Language Association Auxiliary. Or maybe he's just a tired, disspirited old man. Either way, given the popular response, it may just be that the the black Joe Average is capable of grappling unselfconsciously with a complexity that the Talented Tenth are not. A la E. Franklin Frazier, their distance from whites (i.e. segregation) may insulate them from whites' psychic violence ("Sorry Mr. CEO. Thought you were the janitor.") and frees them to speak without censoring themselves (i.e. dog black folks they perceive to be misbehaving). They know exactly who the deserving and the undeserving poor are and just how tricky living in that integrated community can be. Funny that the black masses can call a spade a spade when a black Ph.D. cannot. Must not. One extremely suspicious aspect of these critiques is a suspicious over concern with the doings of whites to the detriment of black introspection and conversation, this business of 'airing [blacks'] dirty laundry' in public.

This analysis is a mainstay of protectionist black advocacy. It is illegitimate and speaks to the relevance of this much needed conversation, the very one that apologists for black underachievement don't want to take place. Duke scholar Karla F.C. Holloway (author of this lovely book) offers the latest, and most elevated, example of this gambit wherein any perceived black disfunction must be de-coupled from blackness:

During Cosby's recent appearance on Oprah to promote the book, parents who tragically lost a child to a drive-by shooting said they were "parents" who tried to protect "our child." They did not say they were "black parents" who tried to protect "our black child." I doubt Cosby heard the subtlety. He was too busy earning the audiences' knowing chuckles when he explained to Oprah that he thought he was talking to "mines" (black folk) in these community attacks. He joked that he had no idea that whites would be listening in, or that someone would report the meeting's agenda to a white friend or member of the press.

While the above is the mildest example of this tactic this writer has encountered, it's common for black critics of the left-liberal status quo to be routinely excoriated, and accused of treason, for "giving ammunition to the enemy," a la Cosby. It's a strategem which must be baldly rejected; either the First Amendment applies among blacks or it does not. At least Dyson took the time to debate Cosby on the merits, however superficially IMHO (e.g. black parents are neither profligate nor uncaring for favoring $500 sneakers over Hooked on Phonics, since the latter hasn't been proven effective). This argument simply takes as given that blacks must ignore their problems if it makes them look bad in front of whites. Presumably, if no one mentions the near 350 black on black murders in Philadelphia this year, George Will won't notice.

More practically, exactly how are blacks, or any group, to discuss their issues, work to redress their grievances, or even comfort each other if they may only do so in a black 'cone of silence,' and doesn't that tell Jaquita to shut the hell up while fronting for Susan? There is simply no set of secretive circumstances under which the National Review is ever going to run out of horrible things things to blame the black victim for, whether blacks stand mute or not. A sad insistence on keeping up the threadbare black urban identity is just that, sad. More significantly, it bespeaks a need for white approval as well as sacrifices a black progress which can only come from discussion, internal critique, and plans for uplift labored upon in concert with blacks and their allies. It simply boggles the mind to reconcile a belief in the kind of racism which helps to produce our urban social condition with the simultaneous insistence that whites must, at all costs, not be allowed to 'hear' a discussion of those conditions.

Dog him all you want, but the Cos' has touched a nerve. This is a conversation black America wants to have, though it's elite may not. Engage with it. Elevate it. Make Cosby admit where he's being redunctionist or just plain wrong. Don't just tell him to shut up because white folks are looking.