Twice recently, Bill Cosby has read the riot act — to his fellow African-Americans.
In May at a gala at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., celebrating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation, the comedian and actor charged that some “lower economic people” were disgracing Black America and dishonoring those who had fought for civil rights.
Roared Cosby, “They’re not holding up their end on this deal.”
DeWayne Wickham, a writer for USA Today and Gannett News, got a tape of the speech.
“I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange (prison jumpsuit),” Cosby told his largely black audience. “Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol?
“We’ve got to take the neighborhood back,” Cosby said. “They’re standing on the corner and can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t. Where you is.’ You used to talk a certain way on the corner, and when you got in the house, you switched to English. Everybody knows that at some point you switch to English, except these knuckleheads. You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth.”
Accused of airing his community’s “dirty laundry,” Cosby, at a Chicago conference of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, fired back: “Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day. It’s cursing and calling each other (the N-word) as they’re walking up and down the street. They think they’re hip. They can’t read. They can’t write. They’re laughing and giggling, and they’re going nowhere.”
With seven in 10 black children born out of wedlock in urban America and crime so pervasive in some cities 40 percent of young black males are in jail or prison, or on probation or parole, Cosby is speaking truth. Where dissent begins is on the question: Who is responsible?
Cosby calls it a copout to blame White America. “For me, there is a time when you have to turn the mirror around,” he said. What the African-American superstar is saying to black folks is: You have made this mess yourselves. Your problems are your own fault. Your failures are your own responsibility.
This message holds true not only for most black folks who make a mess of their lives, but for almost all of us who do. And it is the beginning of redemption to recognize this truth. From Alcoholics Anonymous to Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, reformers know the beginning of reform is to stop blaming someone else.
But the leadership of Black America cannot embrace the Cosby message. Why? Because if White America is not responsible for the social crisis in Black America, upon what moral ground do these leaders stand to demand retribution or reparations?
If White America is not guilty, why should White America pay, other than out of the goodness of its heart? And some black leaders are fully aware of the alarming implications of Cosby’s message, the Rev. Al Sharpton being one of them.
Confessing to having had a “mixed reaction” to what Cosby had to say, Rev. Al told The Washington Post: “I agree that we have to do something about the internal contradictions of our community. But we also must be careful not to relieve the general community of what they’ve done to our community.”
Translation: If the white folks are not guilty, why are they morally obligated to do penance for social sins they did not commit by keeping the wealth and power transfers flowing?
DeWayne Wickham comes down in the moderate middle: “Too many liberals believe racism is the only culprit here — and too many conservatives think the blame rests entirely on the people who are the faces behind these awful statistics. The truth, I’m convinced, is somewhere in between.”
Wickham is onto something. How, after all, do we explain the fact that, in the 1940s, segregated and poor Black America had lower divorce, illegitimacy and promiscuity rates than does affluent White America in 2004? How do we explain a crime rate in segregated and poor Black America, 50 years ago, that was but a fraction of today’s crime and incarceration rate in a freer and richer Black America today? Segregation can’t explain it. Economics can’t. Racism can’t.
Our grandparents, black and white, had different beliefs about right and wrong, and how men and women should behave and live than this generation — and they lived those beliefs. The moral, social and cultural hurricane has swept over America since those times, affecting us all. But the eye of the storm passed over black America.
Patrick J. Buchanan [send him mail], former presidential candidate and White House aide, is editor of The American Conservative and the author of eight books, including A Republic Not An Empire and the upcoming Where the Right Went Wrong.