By Michael E. Dyson
Friday, July 21, 2006; A17
Ever since he battered poor blacks two years ago in his infamous remarks on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education , Bill Cosby has been taking to the road to spread his bitter gospel to all who will listen. In rigged town-hall meetings, Cosby assembles community folk and experts who agree with his take on black poverty: that it's the fault of the poor themselves.
It's often difficult to point out just how harmful that sentiment is, because most black folk do believe strongly in taking their destiny into their own hands. They believe in hard work and moral decency. They affirm the need for education and personal discipline. When they hear Cosby say that poor black folk should go to work, stay out of jail, raise their children properly and make sure they go to school, they nod their heads in agreement.
But it's one thing to say that personal responsibility is crucial to our survival. It's another to pretend that it's the only thing that matters. The confusion between the two positions is what makes Cosby's blame-the-poor tour so destructive. By convincing poor blacks that their lot in life is purely of their own making, Cosby draws on harsh conservative ideas that overlook the big social factors that continue to reinforce poverty: dramatic shifts in the economy, low wages, chronic underemployment, job and capital flight, downsizing and outsourcing, and crumbling inner-city schools.
None of these can be overcome by the good behavior of poor blacks. As historian Robin D.G. Kelley argues, "All the self-help in the world will not eliminate poverty or create the number of good jobs needed to employ the African American community."
Furthermore, Cosby's insistence that race has little to do with the circumstances of the black poor pleases right-wing pundits who believe his denial is a sign of mature black leadership.
For most of his career, Cosby has avoided the subject of race. When approached by blacks to speak out on the subject, he has refused. "I don't have time to sit around and worry whether all the black people of the world make it because of me," he complained early in his career. "I don't want to be a crusader or a leader." Although he spurned the role of spokesman at the height of the civil rights movement, Cosby doesn't mind attacking the black poor now, while playing to stereotypes that plague their path.
One of those stereotypes is that poor blacks are lazy citizens who victim-monger while bemoaning the "white man." Such a view is undercut by what we know about the black poor: Most of them work, and few are paralyzed by their astute perceptions of persistent racism. But Cosby is hellbent on denying that race and structural forces play any role in the lives of the poor -- apparently because of his unsubstantiated fear that if these forces are acknowledged, the poor will lose their initiative, their desire to move ahead.
To borrow the language of philosophers: Personal responsibility is a necessary but insufficient condition for poor blacks to do better. We also need social justice to give them real opportunity to exercise that personal responsibility. That's why Martin Luther King Jr. didn't lead a behave-in to correct black morality, but a sit-in to protest racial injustice. (To be sure, King believed that for blacks to achieve "first-class citizenship," we must "assume the primary responsibility for making it so," even as we continue to "resist all forms of racial injustice.") Even conservative cleric T.D. Jakes argues that personal responsibility is "one-half of the solution" and that the "greater solution" is to combat "the lingering attitudes and bias that continue to fuel injustice."
The plane of black progress lifts on the wings of personal responsibility and social justice. Cosby is trying to fly the plane with one wing. With such a philosophy, it's bound to crash and burn.
The writer, a University of Pennsylvania professor, is the author of "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" and the winner of the 2006 NAACP Image Award.