United We Stood, But Divisions Now Show
So, many talented young African Americans deliberately hold back in school for fear of being accused of "acting white," and adopt the "thug life" as "authentic black." Black business leaders voluntarily languish in "protected market" status long after they have become capable of competing in the mainstream.
African Americans refrain from aggressively investing in the stock market because they don't want to be seen as embracing "the system." Instead, they are encouraged to seek reparations for the enslavement of their "ancestors" -- even though if you asked some, they'd be hard-pressed to say which specific relative was a slave.
By stepping into this historic dynamic and changing the script without permission or warning, Cosby pierced the race sealant and gave a fresh airing to the class controversy in black America. But he didn't go far enough. His "call to action" was all call, and no action.
A screed is not sufficient to effect permanent change. Cosby and others have to take responsibility for their own predicament. After all, many of them are the political, social and economic leaders who advanced the failed bundling policy in the first place. They're the ones who have perpetuated the images Cosby decried.
"Many of those civil rights people [listening to Cosby that night] are complicit in creating the conditions Cosby was talking about," says Robert Woodson, founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a Washington-based community assistance organization. Woodson pointed out, for instance, that the NAACP nominated R. Kelly to receive its coveted Image Award this year even though the R&B singer was facing charges of child molestation.
Where, meanwhile, are the accolades for people like the District's Rita Jackson, who has helped hundreds of young blacks in Northeast Washington with the arts and after-school program she has run since 1979?
And while Cosby should be commended for providing $20 million to Spelman College in Atlanta, and Oprah Winfrey for helping the National Council of Negro Women purchase its headquarters building in the nation's capital, such drive-by acts of charity, which help mostly the middle class, are insufficient. "They have to get more into the nitty-gritty of things going on in lower-income communities," says Francis.
But first African Americans and their leaders may want to endorse Woodson's proposal for a "one-year moratorium on whining about white folks." When groups gather, they should leave the excuses of "racism and white folks out of the room," says Woodson.
That could take African Americans, especially the civil rights leaders among them, beyond shrillness to a genuine analysis of the problems in black America and how to fix them -- including the simmering class struggle that is now out of the jar and on the table.
Jonetta Rose Barras is a Washington author and political analyst for WAMU-FM radio.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company