Recently I had the opportunity to discuss the Bill Cosby/Michael Eric Dyson controversy with friends on an email list. One gentleman took Prof. Dyson to task for “pimp[ing] our condition and creat[ing] an unnecessary debate just to sell some books and gain notoriety” because he agreed with Cosby’s alleged point of view and took a dim view of Dyson’s “attack.” I disagreed with him and spoke in Dyson’s defense.
… In my response, I will quote Dr. Dyson as much as possible because he is his own best defender. Where he doesn’t, I will supply my own thoughts. And note, that this is but the merest of shadows of what Dyson writes in his book. Here we go!
Title of the Book
The title of the book is partly about ensuring sales and partly quipping about the topic. Had the book been entitled Why I Disagree with Cosby and Other Thoughts, I’m not sure people would have found the book interesting enough to pick up let alone purchase. Dyson writes,
If Cosby’s implicit claim is that the black poor have lost their way, then I don’t mind suggesting, with only half my tongue in cheek, that the black middle class, of which I am a member has, in its views of the poor and its support of Cosby’s sentiments, lost its mind. I hope to lay bare the vicious assault of the Afristocracy on the Ghettocracy and offer a principled defense of poor black folk, one rooted in clear-eyed acknowledgment of deficiencies and responsibility but anchored by an abiding compassion for the most vulnerable members of our community.
If you read Cosby’s speech, I’m willing to bet you would see vicious diatribe rather than impassioned truth telling. This kind of disrespectful behavior is not new for Mr. Cosby (see here for an example). But the nation’s love for this man lead many to give him a pass. If Rush Limbaugh had given that speech, many of us, if not most of us, would rise in righteous indignation. Truth telling does not depend on the speaker. The truth is simply that. What damns Mr. Cosby is not necessarily what he said in his speech. (Personally, I did find it sufficient to damn him, however, because as I read Dr. Dyson’s book I found Cosby to be a hypocrite, something for which I have little sympathy. Rule #1: Don’t exhibit the same behavior or pathology you insult others for, e.g. flicking the bird at Dyson in public or refusing to acknowledge that “outside” child or be a father to her. It’s bad form.) What damns him is his change of tactics. I watched an ABC News special on Mr. Cosby and I found his message had changed and changed dramatically at that. No more diatribes, only impassioned “Get up and do it” speeches. All of this was after Dyson called him to the carpet for his speech. Now if what he originally said about black men unknowingly screwing their grandmothers and naming one’s child “Shaniqua, Taliqua, and Muhammad and all that crap” was so good, so cathartic, so right, why not repeat it to the very people in the condition he lambasts?
Cosby’s position is dangerous because it aggressively ignores white society’s responsibility in creating the problems he wants the poor to fix on their own. His position is especially dangerous because he has always, with two notable exceptions, gone soft on white society for its role in black suffering. Now that he has been enshrined by the conservative white critics as a courageous spokesman for the truth that most black leaders leave aside, Cosby has been wrongly saluted for positions that are well staked out in black political ideology. This false situation sets him up as a hero and a dissenter, when he is neither. Self-help philosophy is broadly embraced in black America; but black leaders and thinkers have warned against the dangers of emphasizing self-help without setting it in its proper context. It creates less controversy and resistance–and, in fact, it assures white praise–if black thinkers and leaders make whites feel better by refusing to demand of them the very thing that whites feel those leaders should demand of their followers, including the poor: responsibility. Like so many black elite before him, Cosby, as a public figure who has assumed the mantle of leadership, has failed in his responsibility to represent the interests, not simply demand the compliance, of the less fortunate.
The Cosby Show
As for the “The Cosby Show,” unfortunately it was a doubled-edged sword that definitely cut both ways. Dyson writes,
Cosby…has never been comfortable in confronting white society over the legacy of white supremacy. His emphasis on color-blind comedy, and his retreat from social activism, were as much about avoiding the discomforts of race…as they were about overcoming racism. That’s the case because deciding to “work white” meant that the white audience, his bread and butter, must never be toasted. ‘People have to like you if you’re going to be a comic,’ Cosby said in 1969. ‘After a cat establishes the fact that he’s funny, 40 percent of the pressure is eased up on him because, when he walks out, people already like him.’ Cosby’s likability extended to ‘The Cosby Show’ in large part because he refused to put white folk on the spot by speaking about race at all. Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis, in the empirical study of ‘The Cosby Show,’ point out a disturbing consequence of the show’s success: that it made white America believe everything was fine in black America, that racism was no longer a bother and that whites wouldn’t have to wrestle with their role in a society that was still plagued by racial inequality.
Cosby’s views of the black poor are so bent out of shape by his apparent aggravation that he is led to deny the rigid racial realities that make it extremely difficult, and in some cases impossible, for poor black folk to flesh out their desires to be educated, gainfully employed and free from the despotic empire of want and penury. [Yes, I had to look up ‘penury’ too!] There is significant disadvantage still to black skin [brought out in studies previously cited] in an American culture that proclaims the virtues of individualism while denying to blacks, as a group, the means to fulfill their individual potential. Not only does Cosby discount…white racial privilege…he underplays the persistent racism that affects blacks at every class level, but especially poorer blacks… The reason Cosby can be relatively dismissive of structural racism may have to do with his relative freedom from the constraints of social prejudice…and his failure to fully account for the structural economic injustice faced by poor people may have something to do with his freedom from want, and from the severe psychological and personal penalties it imposes on the most vulnerable…
I suggest that we hold in mind several dimensions of responsibility summarized in the dynamic, reciprocal relation between three interrelated types of responsibilty: personal and social responsibility, moral and intellectual responsibility, and immediate and ultimate responsibility [the latter built on the former]. Personal responsibility involves the individual’s being accountable for her actions and acting in a moral fashion that is helpful to herself and to the members of her family, community, and society. Social responsibility involves the society’s exercising collective accountability to its citizens by acting, through agencies, institutions, and spheres to enhance their well-being, especially the most vulnerable…
Moral responsibility involves self- and other-regarding behavior that aims to realize the good intentions, and maximize the just actions, of persons and societies. [I have the moral responsibility to be personally responsible, work for a socially responsible America, and truth tell when society isn’t.] Intellectual responsibility involves the exercise of mental faculty for the purpose of self-development and the development of society…
Immediate responsibility involves persons and societies acting accountably to address issues, ideas and problems in the present time and environment. Ultimate responsibility involves persons and societies acting accountably to address issues, ideas and problems with an eye on their personal and social impact in the long run.
We have acted, as a society, in an intellectually and morally irresponsible fashion when we assign too much weight to personal responsibility of the poor without figuring out whether they can even respond honorably and reasonably with the resources at hand to the challenges they face, challenges rooted in finite factors that have in large part been constructed by, and in, the social order… As Bishop T.D. Jakes said in response to Cosby’s comments: ‘…If credentials, performance and good grammar could end bias and injustice, Danny Glover would have no trouble hailing a cab in New York. If brains and competence always earned their due, women in corporations would not find a glass ceiling, and the Jewish community would never trip over disrespect. While black education and eloquence are critical, they alone don’t ensure access to the American dream… While black introspection is crucial to healing, it is one-half of the solution. The greater solution is for all Americans to look inside and root out the lingering attitudes and bias that continue to fuel injustice.’
The poor cannot erase the blight of white supremacy by behaving better… Assuming personal responsibility cannot remove vicious structural barriers to economic mobility [e.g. Princeton study finding white ex-felons hired more frequently than black men with no record]. Exercising personal responsibility cannot prevent the postindustrial decline in major northeastern cities, nor can it fix the crumbling infrastructure that continues to keep the poor, well, poor. Being personally responsible can’t stop job flight, structural shifts in the political economy, the increasing technological monopoly of work, downsizing, or outsourcing, problems that middle-class folk, who are presumed to be more personally responsible than the poor, face in abundance these days.
One of the most dishonest effects of elevating Cosby as a spokesman of black interests is that conservative commentators pretend that he is the first prominent black leader to call for personal responsibility… Farrakhan, of course, has been promoting a gospel of black self-help for decades, and while he assaults white supremacy, he recognizes the virtue of black folk, including the black poor, assuming responsibility for their destinies [i.e. the Million Man March]…
At their best, black thinkers and leaders have rarely isolated self-help philosophy from a simultaneous damning of the white supremacy that makes it necessary. Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born activist who organized and led the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the largest black nationalist movement in the nation’s history, emphasized political resistance and a brand of self-reliance that might have made Emerson proud…
W.E.B. Du Bois, an advocate of engaged thought and aggressive social action, agreed in principle with Garvey’s move to join sustained resistance to white supremacy and racial self-help…
Martin Luther King, Jr., the most valiant freedom fighter of the twentieth century, argued that ‘if first-class citizenship is to become a reality for the Negro he must assume the primary responsibility for making it so…’ King admitted that some blacks had ‘lost that something called initiative,’ and that some had used their oppression to excuse mediocrity. But King anticipated the racist use of his words, concluding that the ‘only answer that we can give to those who through blindness and fear would question our readiness and capability is though our lagging standards exist because of the legacy of slavery and segregation, inferior schools, slums, and second-class citizenship, and not because of an inherent inferiority.
He goes on to speak of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH, EXCEL program, and now his latest endeavor The Wall Street Project, which I can tell you is very interesting to someone like me who cares about financial literacy, his media antics notwithstanding.
In a further email I wrote:
In the interest of full disclosure, I took my father to a book signing for this book and he remembered Dyson from a special he had seen that compared him with his brother who is in prison. He didn’t necessarily agree with Dyson on everything, but he did understand him far more. I told my father about Dyson being stopped and beaten by police, how he was on welfare, struggled to raise his kid, worked in a factory, basically lived the life of the people for whom he speaks. In relation to his brother he once said, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.” And that’s real.
It gave context for me, when I see him defend poor people. Don’t ever get it twisted: It’s personal. I saw him on Bill Maher and he went OFF. He let another guest on the show get under his skin when the subject turned to “looting” vs. “finding.” He was articulating his usual defense but he gave it at broadband speeds when folk are used to dialup. I think 4% of the people actually could keep up. I’ve seen it before in other venues as well. He is not pimpin’ the situation believe me.
… Dyson engages everybody. He has people like Dr. John H. McWhorter, whose view on hip hop I despise, but Dyson shows him respect and has Dr. McWhorter on his show to confront his views without disrespecting the man. Cosby has yet to show or call.