Standing up to Cosby's harsh attacks on poor blacks

May 25, 2006|By MARC LAMONT HILL

PHILADELPHIA -- Like the start of baseball season and the end of the school year, Bill Cosby's rants against the black poor are becoming a perennial feature of the impending summer. On the most recent stops along his 18-city "Call Out" tour, Mr. Cosby has reignited controversy by publicly attacking young black men.

While I don't question his love for black people, his recent actions have appeared more venomous than valuable, more condescending than caring and more hateful than helpful.

During a recent speech at the commencement ceremony at the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, Mr. Cosby further demonized black men by labeling them as people who "send their sperm" but run from being fathers. In a recent CNN interview, Mr. Cosby criticized black men who would rather "sell drugs than flip burgers."

He completely lost it at the University of the District of Columbia.

According to The Washington Post, Mr. Cosby fielded a question from a disabled man who promptly criticized the "watered-down" nature of the dialogue and invoked the name of Penn State professor Michael Eric Dyson, whose book Is Bill Cosby Right? provided a principled and thorough response to Mr. Cosby's public statements. Mr. Cosby responded by leaving the stage and hovering over the man's wheelchair, haughtily retorting, "You don't deserve an audience with me." He then added, "I'm not afraid of any Mr. Dyson."

Perhaps he should be.

Unlike many black leaders who praised Mr. Cosby's comments, Mr. Dyson has rightly pointed out that Mr. Cosby's claims were both mean-spirited and lacking in nuance.

Unfortunately, Mr. Cosby has not been willing to engage in a public forum with Mr. Dyson or any other leaders who could offer legitimate rejoinders to Mr. Cosby's critically impoverished analysis of the plight of the black poor.

What makes Mr. Cosby's claims so seductive is that they are lightly dipped in truth. Of course, there are black (and white!) men who won't work, who father multiple children and devalue education. To be certain, they should not merely play the "blame game" but should work hard to improve and ultimately overcome their social circumstances.

The problem, however, is that Mr. Cosby's incessant citations of black men's failings, in addition to being overstated, do not acknowledge the structural issues that undermine his gospel of individual responsibility.

In fact, they largely serve to reinforce a public indifference and outright animus toward the black poor that make it more difficult to enact self-help projects.

Instead of merely exhorting poor black men to do better, Mr. Cosby must also identify the social obstructions to individual betterment. Differential prison sentencing, draconian child support policies and subpar schools are just a few of the factors that undermine the life chances of even the most industrious poor black men. Again, this is not an abdication of responsibility but an acknowledgment of reality.

While one could certainly point to Mr. Cosby's extraordinary philanthropy as evidence of his commitment to young black men, such generosity must be accompanied by a critical and equally public analysis of America's own culpability in our social plight. Otherwise, as other scholars have pointed out, we are allowing his monetary donations to serve as intellectual hush money.

One hopes that more black leaders will have the courage and vision to begin standing up and challenging Mr. Cosby. More important, I hope Mr. Cosby and his supporters will begin to listen.

Marc Lamont Hill is an assistant professor of urban education at Temple University. His e-mail is marchill@temple.edu.

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