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The Philadelphia Inquirer


Racial Bias as Hurdle, Not Excuse

October 28, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

Not long ago, Bob Herbert wrote a New York Times editorial calling on more black fathers to play a part in their children's lives. One letter in response summed up what many consider the enlightened view on black America, referring to Compton in Los Angeles:

The factory jobs are gone, and Compton is drug-infested. It may be useful to say "get a good education, and there's an engineering job waiting for you in Silicon Valley," but that socio-intellectual distance is enormous. To address the problems of the inner city, some kind of viable economic structure needs to exist to help fathers act like fathers.

The lesson, say such analysts, is that black America's problems are insurmountable by any individual. Seventy percent of black children will be born out of wedlock; 94 percent of those who murder blacks will be black; and three in five high school dropouts will have done time by their 30s - and these trends will continue until we have a vast restructuring of the economy amid a second civil-rights revolution.

This view is well-entrenched among academics, but black Americans themselves are increasingly impatient with the idea that for black people, and only us, an unlevel playing field is an excuse for failure and chaos.

Nothing has indicated this more clearly than as authentically black a figure as Bill Cosby going on the road to remind black people that responsibility has to come first. Now, he and Alvin Poussaint - whose authenticity credentials are similarly impeccable - have encapsulated Cosby's message in Come On People.

They remember the days when for all but a few bad apples in black neighborhoods, the idea was that "if you get caught stealing, you're going to embarrass your mother." I think in contrast of black Milwaukee, 2002: A group of teenagers beat a 36-year-old man to death after an altercation, and a local mother's response was: "They do what they want to do. It's not always guaranteed that you know where your kids are at. If they are 16, 17, 18 years old, you can't hold their hand." The System made her say that?

The authors are as revolted as I was at the scene in the film 8 Mile when Eminem's character vanquishes a local rap star in a contest by revealing that he grew up in the suburbs with two parents - as if being fatherless and coming up in the slums was a badge of honor. Saul Bellow once said that the way ghettos are built makes you look skyward and that this made you yearn for the universal. It is that perspective that Cosby and Poussaint are dismayed to see lacking in today's inner cities.

They know that racism is still out there. Urging blacks to open small businesses the way they used to, they note: "You can talk about institutional racism all you want, but black-owned businesses have faded even as institutional racism has lessened." They are aware the criminal-justice system is not always fair to blacks, but that, still, "back in 1950, there were twice as many white people in prison as black. . . . We're not saying there is no discrimination or racial profiling today, but there is less than there was in 1950."

Their point: For a people truly interested in moving ahead, instances of racist bias "are not excuses. These are simply hurdles to jump, and they can be jumped."

And they show us how. They are especially good in observing that community colleges offer vocational training as well as GEDs. The factory jobs are gone, but today's versions of those jobs include nurse, mechanic, computer technician, dental hygienist, emergency medical technician, or physical-therapy assistant. Many offer thoroughly middle-class incomes. The authors have a lot of other useful counsel, ranging from simple things like not letting your kids have a TV in their bedrooms to larger ones, such as how to get drug pushers out of a neighborhood. This book is not just Cosby's grouchy road-trip performance between two covers; it is an instruction kit for overcoming at last.

They could have spent a little less time on issues of diet and more on schools. "The schools need to get their acts together and start educating our children as if they mattered" is not exactly a fresh observation these days, and we must look elsewhere for suggestions on schools that we could really work with. Plus, as gangsta rap goes, say what you want about the sexism and the violence, but that horse is out of the barn. Nothing will wean young black people (including ones now 45 years young) from their favorite music, even if it recapitulates, as Cosby and Poussaint observe, a racist antique film like The Birth of a Nation. Blacks will overcome despite the music in their iPods making King, Malcolm and DuBois turn in their graves.

Cosby and Poussaint know they won't reach everyone. I did a radio show with Philadelphia's Reggie Bryant at WHAT-AM (1340) in which he insisted racism was worse now than in the past. Some academics, aggrieved at Come On People's message that black people can actually help themselves despite an imperfect society, will attack Cosby for stretching the truth at times, as when he says, in a jocular moment, that "a child who can't recite the first word beyond 'I have a dream' can recite every word of Young Gotti's Same Day Different S-t CD."

But our authors, while hardly "black conservatives," know the truth: "Blaming only the system . . . keeps the black poor wallowing in victimhood." If I could make black people read two books right now, it would be Come On People and what I regard - seriously - as its companion, Tyler Perry's Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings from last year, as dead-on an address to black women as Come On is to men.

As Jesse Jackson has actually been known to put it, "No one can save us from us but us." Michael Eric Dyson asked the question in the title of his 2005 book: Is Bill Cosby Right? Well, Come On People is an eloquent confirmation that, as so many of us knew already, he is.

Original Source:



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