Was comedian Bill Cosby right when he criticized poor blacks for not appreciating and thus capitalizing on the path people such as civil rights icon Rosa Parks paved?
It's fitting, as many reflect on Parks's life and her decision not to move to the back of the bus, that we also examine the current economic state of black America. So this month for the Color of Money Book Club, I'm recommending "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" by Michael Eric Dyson (Basic Civitas Books, $23).
During a ceremony last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Cosby contrasted the achievements of civil rights activists such as Parks with the current generation of "lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people" who he said have not been holding up their end of the deal.
Cosby said they are squandering what Parks and others fought for.
They are "fighting hard to be ignorant," he said.
Poor blacks are bad parents because they waste what little money they have buying high-priced, brand-name shoes, Cosby chided.
"All this child knows is gimme, gimme, gimme," Cosby said, according to a transcript of the speech. "They are buying things for the kid. $500 sneakers. For what?"
Cosby was lauded by white conservatives and some blacks for being brave enough to speak out. But like the price of sneakers that Cosby got wrong, he was incorrect about much of what he said. And Dyson proves as much in his well-researched book.
Dyson begins most chapters with Cosby's own words and then methodically dissects the comments, showing just why the comedian was rattling off nonsense much like his Fat Albert character Mushmouth. "Cosby's remarks are not the isolated ranting of a solo rhetorical gunslinger, but simply the most recent, and the most visible, shot taken at poor blacks in a more-than-century-old class war in black America," Dyson writes in the book's preface.
Dyson, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, deftly demolishes the stereotypes Cosby let loose.
Let's take Cosby's assertion that lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people are pathological consumers throwing their money away on overpriced consumer goods.
Dyson counters with research by anthropologist Elizabeth Chin. In her book "Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture," Chin concluded that black youths are not brand-crazed consumer addicts any more so than other youths. In fact, the children Chin studied more often than not made good purchasing decisions.
"The point of Chin's book is to dispel the sort of myths perpetuated by Cosby and many others, black and white," Dyson writes. "The perception that the meager resources of the poor are somehow atrociously misspent on expensive consumer items is far out of proportion to the facts of the case."
It smacks of elitism that poor blacks are held to standards that most Americans aren't, Dyson said in an interview. He reminds readers of what President Bush asked Americans to do after Sept. 11, 2001.
He asked us all to go shopping. And many did and are still shopping till they are now dropping from financial exhaustion.
"It is interesting that Cosby expects poor parents, and youth, to be more fiscally responsible than those with far greater resources prove to be," Dyson writes.
But what about the oft-repeated assertion that poor blacks can't afford to be spendthrifts?
"There is a cruelty to such an observation," according to Dyson. "Not only is the poor parent, or child, at a great disadvantage economically, but they are expected to be more judicious and responsible than their well-to-do counterparts, with far fewer resources."
Dyson's book is a stinging indictment of upper-middle-income blacks who have benefited from the civil rights movement but now feel justified to criticize poor black folks who haven't ascended to the same financial success.
By no means does Dyson absolve impoverished blacks of personal responsibility. Instead, he documents why we all "must never lose sight of the big social forces that make it difficult for poor parents to do their best jobs and for poor children to prosper."
This isn't a book that just black folks should read. It's a book that will challenge everyone to examine his or her stereotypical views of the underclass.
If you are interested in discussing this month's book selection, join me online at www.washingtonpost.com at noon on Thursday. Dyson will be my guest and will take your questions.
To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended book and chat online with the author and me. In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "Is Bill Cosby Right?" send an e-mail to email@example.com. Please include your name and an address so we can send you a book if you win.
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