The Cosby consensus

September 27, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Across the country, middle-class black Americans are applauding comedian Bill Cosby's insistent campaign to draw attention to the bad habits and poor choices that limit black achievement.

There has been little disagreement about his main points - that drug use, poor classroom performance and the embrace of outlaw culture have done nothing but cement the black underclass at the bottom of American society. An ethic that dismisses serious scholarship as "a white thing" has handicapped middle-class black kids, too.

In early September, Mr. Cosby spoke at a Washington forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, where he criticized parents who allow their children to be "managed with a cell phone" and who don't keep up with their children's schoolwork. According to published reports, his remarks were warmly received. After the forum, the Rev. Al Sharpton credited Mr. Cosby with creating a "sea change" by speaking out on a previously taboo topic.

There is plenty of precedent for Mr. Cosby's plain-spokenness. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, accomplished blacks routinely policed the behavior of their less-polished brethren, urging thrift, moderation, tidiness. (Much of that conversation, however, went unnoticed by white America.)

It was only during the 1960s, when civil rights legislation was gaining traction, that the black intelligentsia clamped down on any public acknowledgment of black dysfunction. Civil rights leaders believed any admission of black failure would damage the movement. A later generation of "black power" activists denounced any black critic of black failure as a race traitor.

The shift back to an embrace of personal responsibility hasn't come a moment too soon. Because of global forces beyond the control of any politician, the jobs that created the nation's middle class are disappearing, leaving only a poorly paid service class and a highly paid professional class. Seeing the trends, many middle-class parents will be trying to ensure that their children end up among the professionals. The competition for slots in good schools and for high-paying jobs will only increase.

That portends a more fractious political and social climate. Black Americans will be less able to depend on liberal largess for a hand up. For that matter, so will less-affluent whites.

(A word of caution: This column is intended only for those comfortable with nuance and complexity. This is no libertarian brief for the end of government assistance or affirmative action. Both personal responsibility and societal responsibility - a social safety net, in other words - are necessary to provide a stable and democratic civil society.)

Already, black immigrants are challenging native-born black students for prestigious slots in Ivy League schools. In June, according to The New York Times, several prominent black academics pointed out that about two-thirds of Harvard University's black undergraduates are black immigrants, children of immigrants or children of biracial marriages.

It's no great surprise that immigrants and their children do well. Regardless of national origin, immigrants tend to be resourceful strivers.

But black parents ought to note this, as well: The success of black immigrants strongly suggests that race is no great barrier to achievement. While many black activists contend that there is still a grave disadvantage in being the descendants of slaves, it is hard to see what that could be. (Note, too, that black West Indians are also the descendants of slaves.) Yes, our ancestors suffered. But the 21st-century racist aims his hate at the color of our skin - not at where we came from or who our grandparents were.

Racism notwithstanding, if a black Antiguan can get high SAT scores, a black Atlantan should be able to earn them, too.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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