Is Bill Cosby Right?

Bill Cosby at the University of the District of Columbia (May 16, 2006)
Bill Cosby at the University of the District of Columbia (May 16, 2006) (Michael Williamson / The Washington Post)
Reviewed by Peniel E. Joseph
Sunday, August 20, 2006


The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About It

By Juan Williams

Crown. 243 pp. $25

In 1963 James Baldwin emerged as an oracle on race relations in the service of transforming American democracy. A masterpiece of criticism, The Fire Next Time cast Baldwin as a modern-day Jeremiah warning the nation against impending doom posed by segregation, institutional racism and white supremacy. "Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them," he cautioned.

More than 40 years later, prophets such as Baldwin have all but vanished from intellectual discourse, replaced by a chorus of commentators whose gaze has turned decidedly inward. Lacking the political courage and personal compassion to confront the racism, segregation, poverty and violence that so disturbed Baldwin, these post-civil rights critics observe that, for black people, the enemy is us.

Juan Williams, an NPR analyst and former Washington Post reporter, joins a growing line of such fed-up liberals and disappointed progressives (including scholar Orlando Patterson and entertainer Bill Cosby) who find the state of much contemporary black life alarming and more than a little embarrassing, considering the gains of the civil rights movement.

Williams believes that the 1954 Brown school-desegregation decision and subsequent activism and legislation virtually cured the disease of racism; that heroic era was a 20th-century watershed. For him, the remedies for racism's remaining vestiges are education, self-determination and individual responsibility. Regarding political leaders in the 21st century, he prefers mavericks in the mold of Bill Cosby, whom he considers courageous enough to "call out" the predatory behavior of the black poor. On this score, Williams laments what he sees as a black underclass mesmerized by racial hucksters playing "old school" politics: corporate blackmail disguised as boycotts, naked shakedowns leveraged by rhetorical threats and the like.

Occasionally the depth of historic and contemporary institutionalized racism faced by blacks creeps into Williams's discussion, but he is more concerned with what he perceives as black apathy and self-destructive behavior. This is disappointing: A discussion of post-civil rights racism would have added nuance to Enough 's criticism of contemporary black leadership, reparations, public schools, criminality and culture.

For Williams, Cosby stands out as a prophet amid a searing American wilderness: bold enough to expose the rough truth that individual responsibility is more responsible than "systemic racism" for black crime, educational shortcomings and bad behavior. In Cosby's speeches and Williams's book, fleeting acknowledgments of racism are trumped by simplistic, at times repetitive lectures cautioning blacks to look at their own shortcomings before blaming anyone else.

Beyond Williams's polemics lies a more complex story about the political economy of racism whose effects on poor neighborhoods elude those who romanticize ghetto and "gangsta" culture. His discussions of the "stop snitching" campaigns that discourage cooperation with police and Cosby's outrage over the epidemic use of the "N" word are worthy of serious debate. But that would require the kind of rich analysis, penetrating insight and layered narrative that Enough lacks, as well as a hard look at the impacts of unemployment, racial profiling, police brutality and other features of modern-day racism, along with the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow, which continue to disfigure the lives of blacks and distort the shape of American democracy.

Unlike The Covenant With Black America , a bestselling anthology with concrete proposals for community empowerment, Enough concludes with a flurry of righteous condescension, preaching that youngsters can best avoid poverty by finishing high school, getting a job and postponing marriage and child-bearing until at least 21. Williams's praise for African Americans' creative resilience during the rough road from slavery to freedom is commendable, as is his ardor for the achievements of civil rights activists. But even as civil rights victories opened doors of opportunity, white backlash, the decline of industrial jobs and fatigue over racial conflict helped blunt the movement's more ambitious dreams: ending poverty, forging genuine racial integration and eliminating social, political and economic disparities based on race.

Like many storytellers, Williams imagines that his subject, the civil rights movement, had a beginning, a middle and an end. But it may be closer to the truth to regard the civil rights victories of the 1960s as only a historic chapter in America's unfinished saga of racial struggle. ยท Peniel E. Joseph, who teaches in the Department of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University, is the author of "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company