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Why is Bill Cosby spreading racist stereotypes?
Leading the "blame the victim" chorus

October 7, 2005 | Pages 8 and 9

IN A review of a new book that challenges the racist rants of comedian Bill Cosby, BRIAN JONES shows that racism is alive and well in the U.S. today.

MORE THAN 140 years after the end of slavery, and 40 years after the end of legal segregation, African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. Almost one-quarter of Black families live under the poverty line--four times the percentage of white families. Median household income for African Americans was almost 40 percent less than for white households. And though Blacks comprise just 12 percent of the U.S. population, they are almost half of the 2.2 millions souls rotting in U.S. prisons and jails.

Who's to blame for this? According to the multimillionaire comedian Bill Cosby, the Black poor have no one but themselves to blame for being poor. On the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision (which officially made segregated schools illegal), Cosby blamed poor Blacks for not "keeping up their end of the bargain."

"I can't even talk the way these people talk," Cosby complained. "'Why you ain't, where you is go, ra.' I don't know who these people are. And I blamed the kid, until the mother talks...Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't land a plane with 'why you ain't'...You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth...What the hell good is Brown v. the Board of Education if nobody wants it?"

Was Cosby slammed for feeding into these racist stereotypes about Black people? On the contrary, at most, Cosby was criticized for openly airing the Black community's "dirty laundry." On the whole, conservatives and liberals alike received Cosby's rant with open arms. The National Review praised Cosby for "shaming those who need to be shamed," and the media coined his subsequent speeches as "tough love" for the Black community.

Michael Eric Dyson's new book, Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?) is a refreshing departure from this "blame the victim" chorus. Dyson takes apart Cosby's argument piece by piece, exposing the myths of a Black "pathology" as racist garbage.

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EARLY IN the book, Dyson reminds us that Cosby was himself a less-than-successful student. His sixth-grade teacher commented that he would rather "clown than study," a tendency that apparently caused him to flunk the tenth grade three times. Cosby was awarded his bachelor's degree years after he dropped out only because of his "life experience"--and, instead of taking regular classes, Cosby received credit toward his graduate degree for appearing on TV in Sesame Street and the Electric Company.

More to the point, however, is Cosby's lifelong approach to racism--ignoring it. As a comedian, Cosby consciously made a name for himself by choosing not to talk about race or racism in his act. "Color humor, like off-color humor, makes audiences uncomfortable," Cosby said in 1965. "When I began telling racial jokes, the Negroes looked at the whites, the whites at the Negroes, and no one laughed."

Cosby's landmark television series, The Cosby Show, took this approach to a whole new level, featuring an upper middle-class family that faced few if any obstacles to success. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. commented when the show appeared, "The representations of Blacks on TV are a very poor index to our social advancement or political progress." What an understatement!

It is the height of hypocrisy for Cosby--who became a multimillionaire by helping audiences avoid uncomfortable racial questions, and who never used his position to help the Black movement that benefited him--to now turn himself into a racial commentator, and use his position to attack the poor.

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WHILE COSBY'S role as a commentator on race issues is new, his arguments are not. There has always been a division in the Black community between the mass of working-class and poor Blacks and the Black elite. Dyson unearths a 1914 study of the attitudes of middle-class Blacks toward their working-class counterparts, called "Morals and Manners Among Negro Americans."

"Although many of our children are neglected and allowed to run to the moving picture shows and public dances at night unaccompanied, yet the 'Parent-Teachers' Association' is making a winning fight to give assistance to incompetent mothers," explains one respondent. Another is more explicit: "Better classes of colored people rear their children properly. Among the lower elements, the children are not reared properly."

Today, few would look back and argue that the advancement of Blacks in 1914 was constrained because of "bad parenting." It's easier to see now that no amount of "proper rearing" could have overcome the barriers erected by institutional racism.

Fifty years later, when the civil rights movement destroyed those barriers, Blacks expected a new era of equality and opportunity to arise. But the passing of major civil rights legislation didn't go far enough. John Lewis--then a leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and now a member of Congress, called the proposed changes "too little and too late." He wrote, "What is in the bill that will protect the homeless and starving people of this nation? What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid that makes $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?"

The idea that civil rights weren't enough was not confined to the "radical fringe." The leading lights of the era recognized that, far from signaling the end of the struggle against racial oppression, the civil rights movement was only a beginning. Malcolm X observed, "[I]t's impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg...The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, period."

In the last year of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. referred to the recently passed civil rights laws as "at best surface changes." He argued that the problem was capitalism itself, and that "[y]ou can't talk about solving the economic problem of the negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can't talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of the slums."

Today, racism continues to operate on the level of personal attitudes. The racism of individual people in power regularly confines opportunities available to Blacks. A 2003 study by economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan concluded that people with "white-sounding" names were 50 percent more likely to be called in for interviews than job applicants with "Black-sounding" names. The executives at Texaco who--enjoying a laugh at the low status of their Black employees--were caught on tape referring to the "black jelly beans" as being "stuck at the bottom of the bag" are not the first, nor the last.

But more deceptively, racism continues to be woven into the structure of society. American capitalism has always relied on racism against people of African descent to divide the poor and working classes and to protect the interests of the wealthy. The military, the police, the prisons, the schools--every major institution in our society--developed and perfected (over hundreds of years) the preservation and enforcement of racial divisions.

It isn't so surprising, therefore, to see that racism continues to influence their operation today. How else can we explain that 40 years after the struggle to desegregate the schools, they remain as segregated as ever? Blacks and Latinos today constitute nearly the entire population of America's urban public schools. As of the 2002-2003 school year, the percentages of Black and Latino enrollment were: in Chicago, 87 percent; in Washington D.C., 94 percent; in St. Louis, 82 percent; in Philadelphia and Cleveland, 79 percent; in Los Angeles, 84 percent; in Detroit, 96 percent; in Baltimore, 89 percent; in New York, 75 percent.

In a searing Harper's magazine article called "Still Separate, Still Unequal," Jonathan Kozol points out the painful irony of segregation today in schools that are named after leaders of the desegregation struggle. In Harlem, the Thurgood Marshall School is 98 percent Black and Latino.

"Black school officials in these situations," writes Kozol, "have sometimes conveyed to me a bitter and clear-sighted recognition that they're being asked, essentially, to mediate and render functional an uncontested separation between children of their race and children of white people...Implicit in a willingness to set aside the promises of Brown [v. Board of Education] and--though never stating this or even thinking of it clearly in these terms--to settle for the promise made more than a century ago in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in which 'separate but equal' was accepted as a tolerable rationale for the perpetuation of a dual system in American society."

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THAT THE struggle for racial justice has slid so far backwards--to 1896--is a product of the defeat of the Black Power movement and the success of U.S. capitalism in restabilizing, using a classic "carrot and stick" approach: co-opting Black leaders on the one hand, and promoting a racist backlash on the other.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor pointed out in an International Socialist Review article, "The number of Black elected officials has increased from fewer than 200 in 1964 to over 8,000 today. Today, there are more than 47 Black mayors in cities of 50,000 or more--including Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco." These "Black faces in high places" have overseen the destruction of Black employment, an increase in police brutality, racial profiling and Black imprisonment, and the re-segregation of public schools.

The primary weapons in the backlash--or the "stick"--have been the war on drugs, "tough on crime" rhetoric and an emphasis on "personal responsibility." Since overt racism had been discredited, all three were a veiled way to stoke racism all the same.

So, for example, though Blacks are only 15 percent of all drug users, they were portrayed as the principal drug users in the U.S. Likewise, inner-city Blacks became the face of crime and low morals. Conveniently, these ideas provided cover for arresting, imprisoning and even murdering Black radicals.

The growth of a visible Black elite, the absence of legal racial obstacles, and the decline of Black living standards make it possible to believe that, as Cosby argues, "[I]t's not what they're doing to us. It's what we're not doing." In the absence of any kind of social struggle, many people feel Cosby's comments are a step forward--because he's at least acknowledging the crisis.

But that crisis is social, not personal. It's not "bad parenting" or "low morals" that have condemned thousands of Black residents of New Orleans to die in flood waters, but systematic neglect of an infrastructure that should have protected, sheltered and evacuated the majority Black population.

The starting point for a new generation committed to justice must be to acknowledge that America is still a deeply racist society. We must expose and challenge racism in the criminal justice system, in our schools and in our workplaces.

But this will only be a beginning. Our dire circumstances are only symptoms of the deeper social problem--that we live in a society that cares more for profit than for people. Parenting, however diligent, can't solve this crisis.

We have to take the "profit" out of the slums" as Martin Luther King argued nearly 40 years ago. When we change this system fundamentally, we will have the chance--at long last--to create a society based on real equality.

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