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TWO SIDES: Is Bill Cosby's Personal Responsibility/Message Unfair to Poor Blacks?

December 01, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Message Unfair to Poor Blacks?

No. Cosby is right in making us think about these things.

Ask people who think Bill Cosby is wrong whether change in Black America has to come from within. They'll say "of course." But they're not much interested in talking about it for long.

For them, the problem in inner cities is that America has no room for Black people without college degrees. Take this letter to The New York Times last year on why Compton in Los Angeles is no longer the stable suburb of two-parent families it was before the '70s: "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."

It's that old chestnut, Sociology 101. Factory jobs left cities. There were no other jobs for men without college. So anything going on in the inner city is the inevitable result of an unlevel playing field, and until it's level, things will stay just as they are.

This idea is in our music. "There's a lot of rap with something to say," we are told. Then, listen to what a lot of it says, including "conscious" rap: that there are no jobs for Black men in the 'hood.

Never mind how counterintuitive this idea is. Dark-skinned immigrants come to this country and make a living. For that matter, Black Americans are working steadily all over the country.

The writer, speaker or "conscious" rapper telling us there are no jobs for his people likely passes by Black security guards every day, and neither they nor anyone else sees that guard as a rare specimen. What color is the guy who installed your cable TV? Or the UPS man? Did he go to college? Was his high school likely even top-notch?

We accept that the Earth is round even though it looks flat in daily experience. In the same way, we accept that Black men without college degrees can't get jobs because factories are no longer waiting to hire them-while watching Black men without college degrees driving trains, delivering mail and fixing phone lines.

As Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint tell us in their book Come On People, community colleges offer low-cost vocational training, as well as GEDs, to people who don't feel like spending four years learning about Shakespeare and World War I. Mechanics, dental hygienists and emergency medical technicians can make solid middle-class incomes. Cosby is right in making us think about these things.

Darnell used to be ready with his lunch pail to make tires at the Ford plant. But the plant moved to Beijing. Does that mean all Darnell can do to keep alive is sell drugs, and that since he can only make so much money doing that, we can't expect him to help raise his kids?

What about his brother Eugene who works as a building inspector and lives a decent life? Building inspectors don't have college degrees. Eugene is not a superman. He just took a different path than Darnell.

People who think Cosby is wrong think Eugene is beside the point. But Eugene is not an exception. Really-think about the Black America you know. There's a Eugene for every Darnell. All we need to do is show the Darnells that it's not as hard to become Eugene as it might look.

Sure, Cosby was a little grouchy in the way he first put forth his message. But Come On People is full of common sense and useful advice.

The message that we are powerless until there is no racism, the factory jobs come back and the basic operations of our economy and government turn upsidedown is a hopeless one.

What use is it to us when a rapper says since there's no work, ghetto violence is "the way it is"? What use is it to us when social scientist Gary Orfield says "we're pumping out boys with no alternative" but to sell drugs?

What do people like this have to say about Eugene? Why do they find him so uninteresting? If I could make Black people read two books right now, they 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, an address from Perry's Madea character to Black women that is as dead-on as Come On People.

We need a positive message. Too many have lost touch with how to make the best of ourselves and our kids despite obstacles, and despite that the playing field may never be completely level.

A positive message teaches us how to do that. That message is Cosby's.

"Cosby was a little grouchy in the way he first put forth his message, But Come On People is full of common sense."

* * *

Yes. Self-help doesn't negate society's obligation to all people


Let's get this out of the way from the start: Only a fool or a dishonest person would deny that everybody, including the poor, ought to be responsible for themselves and for how they act in the world. But we must not only demand responsibility of the poor; we must also discuss our responsibility to the poor.

Bill Cosby thinks that if only the poor were willing to work harder, act better, get educated, stay out of jail and parent more effectively, their problems would go away. It's hard to argue with any of that, but one could do all of this and still be in bad shape at home, work or school.

For instance, in our economy, where low-skilled work is all but gone, all the right behavior in the world won't create better jobs for the poor. And personal responsibility can't lower the unemployment rate. The 8.9 percent Black unemployment rate is twice that for Whites. For Black men, the unemployment rate is even higher, at 9.5 percent, compared with 4 percent for White men. The median weekly income of Black men age 16 and older who worked full time was 78 percent of White men's income. Plus, the minimum wage has plummeted nearly 35 percent since 1968. So even though most of the poor are working, they're not getting fairly paid.

Personal responsibility alone can't fix that, but our social responsibility to the poor can. Martin Luther King said that when our society places "the responsibility on its system, not on the individual, and guarantees secure employment or guaranteed income, dignity will come within the reach of all." King believed that the obsession with personal responsibility for the poor was wrong because it let society off the hook. And blasting the poor is misled. "We do much too little to assure decent, secure employment," King said. "And then we castigate the unemployed and underemployed for being misfits and ne'erdo-wells. We still assume that unemployment usually results from personal defects; our solutions therefore largely tend to be personal and individual." Instead, we need to look at "the causes and cures of the economic misfortunes" of the poor and seek to "establish income security."

For those who say, "Just get a good education and you'll get a good job," things aren't quite that easy. Seventy percent of Black students in the nation attend schools in inner cities that are composed largely of minority students. These schools are often located in poor neighborhoods with far fewer resources and a lower tax base than suburban schools. And the education that poor kids get shows. Personal responsibility alone can't fix poor neighborhoods or lousy schools, but social responsibility should prompt us to argue for greater resources and educational parity.

It doesn't take a bunch of money to love your kids and pay attention to them. But if you're working two jobs with no benefits, taking time off to attend a conference with teachers may cost you precious resources-or even one of those jobs. It's hard enough to parent with ample resources; poor parents are often caught in a bind of choosing between spending time with their children or working for the few dollars they earn to take care of them. It's not a choice they should have to make. If we work for child care and better jobs for the poor-and for better health care to-then they might be able to exercise their responsibility more fully.

Should we take responsibility for family planning to stop fly-by-night baby-making? Yes, but the numbers have actually gone down: In 1970, there were 72 pregnancies per 1,000 for Black females between the ages of 15 and 17, while in 2000, there were 30.9 pregnancies per 1,000. Should the poor stop killing each other? Of course, but that won't be achieved solely by marches against homicide that both me and Mr. Cosby have led in Philadelphia. It also takes community policing-and more quality work won't hurt.

Should the poor stay out of jail? Sure, but we can't deny that society locks our children up for offenses that bring White kids a mere slap on the wrist. That doesn't give us a license to misbehave; we shouldn't wait until poverty is destroyed to act responsibly. But as we fight poverty, we increase the likelihood that the vulnerable will be more responsible. (Although irresponsibility among intellectuals, comedians, leaders and preachers suggests the poor are often unfairly targeted while the sins of the rich are barely noticed.)

Should the poor practice self-help? King said it's "all right to say to a man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it's a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps." If we're going to hold poor people responsible, let's give out more boots.

"We must not only demand responsibility of the poor; we must also discuss our responsibility to the poor."

Michael Eric Dyson is University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and is author of sixteen books, including Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?



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