On the one side is Bill Cosby telling young black "knuckleheads" to shape up and black adults to get serious about their parental responsibilities. On the other side . . .
The curious thing about the controversy the entertainer sparked in May is that there really is no other side.
Some of his critics have argued that his remarks came at the wrong time (at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education) and before the wrong audience (a Washington gathering of black America's most conspicuous non-knuckleheads). But virtually all agree that there's truth in what he said.
So why does his repetition and elaboration on the necessity of black Americans' taking primary responsibility for their own progress or failure still generate controversy?
For several reasons, I think. First, it goes against a carefully nurtured orthodoxy that holds (when white people are listening, at least) that since our problems were born of white racism, white people must assume responsibility for fixing them.
Cosby's chastisement places the responsibility much nearer home. And it engenders a fear that his words will reduce the white guilt that many think is necessary to enact and fund programs to help blacks move toward racial parity.
Not only does Cosby's insistent new theme expose our dirty linen in public, letting white people off the hook, it also suggests that there is in black America a cultural failing. There is natural sympathy -- even where there is strong resistance -- to rejected people seeking, humbly, the right to vote or to attend school or to sit at a lunch counter. But where will that sympathy go when Cosby emphasizes the foul language, resistance to school learning and barely comprehensible English of too many black youngsters? ("Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads," he said in May. "You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth.")
Doesn't he understand that the attitudes he decries are born of racism, that he is blaming the victims? Does he imagine that the end of official segregation, the passage of a few civil rights acts and the ascension of a few blacks to household-name status (Colin, Oprah, Tiger) have ended the disadvantage that goes with black skin?
In other words, has Cos taken leave of his senses?
I don't think so. I think Cosby believes what I believe but what many of us are nervous about saying out loud: that racism notwithstanding, our fate is more firmly in our own hands than it has ever been, and that it is necessary for us to start acting like it.
My problem with what Cosby has been saying -- and how he has been saying it -- is that he seems to believe that the failure he sees is willful: that if black teenagers would use better language, and if their parents insisted on more discipline, their prospects would be greatly improved and that they know it.
Think of a high school football coach who has taught his players everything he knows, gotten them into prime condition and, by acts small and great, taught them that he truly cares for them. Such a coach can pull a player out of the game after a mental lapse, yell at him, call him a knucklehead and then put him back into the game with a realistic expectation that the kid will do better.
Now imagine the yelling coming from a guy who just happened to see the boneheaded play. Will the youngster pull himself together and play better? Or is he more likely to explode into counterproductive resentment?
The coach has not only earned the right to yell but has also imparted the lessons that the yelling is intended to recall. Cos is hoping -- futilely, it seems to me -- that his yelling will evoke lessons never taught.
As with the youngsters, so with their parents. Screaming at the parents of street-seduced children that they should exert more discipline isn't enough. These parents -- often single mothers -- mostly don't know how to exert effective discipline, and they lack the wherewithal to relocate to a part of town where such discipline may be easier.
I believe that both young people and their parents can do what Cosby wants them to do, but I also believe that their failure to do so is not volitional. Some people, under the worst of circumstances, will find their way. But most of us have to be taught how to act even in our own interest.
So how about it, Cos? A little less yelling -- and a little more coaching?