Black leaders must choose between criminals and victims

May 29, 2004|By Gregory Kane

THE NEXT time a group of black folks invites somebody with the last name of Cosby to speak anywhere, you can be sure it'll be Camille Cosby, not her husband, Bill.

A few years back, after the Cosbys' only son, Ennis, was killed by a Russian immigrant who had racist attitudes toward black people, Camille Cosby published an op-ed piece blaming whites. It was white America, Camille Cosby wrote, who taught her son's killer to hate blacks. She even drew a connection to President Ulysses S. Grant's picture on the $50 bill and his ownership of two slaves - who became his legal property after he married his wife - to the gunman pulling the trigger.

It was, at best, a leap of logic spanning light-years. But many black Americans bought it. For them, Camille Cosby was no longer just the wife of a famous comedian and actor. She was Our Lady Camille of Cosby, the patron saint of our perpetual and blessed victimhood.

Then along came husband, Bill, during the week when all black folks were supposed to be giddy and happy and euphoric about the 50th anniversary "celebration" of the "victory" we won May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled segregated education illegal.

But old Bill wasn't in the mood for any victory celebration. Like a handful of other black folks, he realized that with the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites, there was nothing to celebrate and plenty to be ticked off about. At Howard University, where National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund officials had gathered for one of those "celebrations," the renowned comedian and actor showed how ticked off he was.

Cosby thoroughly and rightfully excoriated blacks who buy $500 sneakers for their kids but "won't spend $200 for `Hooked on Phonics.'" He chided the "knuckleheads" who insist on butchering the English language, and horror of horrors, he had the gall to suggest that the black men in prison whom black liberal leaders and organizations constantly cry about just might be there because of poor parenting.

Though many in the crowd were reportedly stunned and shocked, several black pundits have since weighed in. Their consensus? Cosby said what needed to be said, and the uproar occurred only because he said it publicly.

Excuse me?

Black conservatives have been saying for years, precisely and publicly, what Cosby said. The reaction to their observations was different. Those same pundits who hesitate to criticize Cosby's remarks had hinted that black conservatives were merely the tools of white, racist conservatives. But at least the reaction of those pundits was measured.

Those blacks who feel it's their solemn and sacred duty to channel Malcolm X at every opportunity had a different reaction. To them, black conservatives were Uncle Toms, handkerchief-heads, house Negroes, house slaves, race traitors and that ever-reliable pejorative term, Sambos. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was even pictured handkerchief-headed on the cover of one national black magazine. Another issue of the same magazine featured him on the cover as a lawn jockey. So-called art that accompanied the story inside depicted Thomas gleefully shining Justice Antonin Scalia's shoes.

Few, if any, of the pundits who now have to concede that Bill Cosby was right had any reaction to the poisoning of Afro-American political discourse manifested by the gratuitous and ad hominem attacks on black conservatives. But because the pundits are now in the mood to hear things that need to be said, they should try these on for size.

When the NAACP LDEF filed a lawsuit in North Carolina in 1997 for some blacks who opposed statewide promotion exams, the organization made victims of some of the same people Cosby criticized in his remarks. The LDEF did every Afro-American a disservice with that lawsuit.

Black leaders who constantly lament the plight of the black criminal - who complain that too many black men are in prison but not in college and who made restoring voting rights to black felons a civil rights issue - have a choice to make. Either they support young black men like William Thomas, who was critically wounded in a shooting at Randallstown High School early this month, and Rio-Jarrell Tatum, the promising Polytechnic Institute graduate killed on Baltimore's streets two years ago this week, or they support the black men who shot them.

Our peerless leaders need to pick one group or the other. They can't support both because the two groups have opposing agendas. While the leaders are at it, they can ponder one more thing that "needs to be said."

All too many black youths support a culture that glorifies gangstas, thugs and pimps. That culture will produce a disproportionately high number of gangstas, thugs and pimps, and a disproportionately low number of scholars. Those blacks who have a problem with those words can find some comfort.

Just pretend Bill Cosby said them.

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