Sunday, November 19, 2006

Is Bill Cosby Wrong ?

A few summers ago when Bill Cosby went into a tirade against the black poor--and the black community as whole--I was part of the distinct but vocal minority who were disappointed with his words. Much of white America clapped at having America's favorite "Black Dad" tell it like they always wanted to hear it. Cosby's words served as the perfect apologist stance for whiteness which has never taken any form of responsibility for centuries of oppression. Many blacks chimed in, clapping along at Cosby for finally "telling the truth." Duped and beaten into believing that racism and oppression is somehow "our fault," much of the black community embraced Cosby's words as a means to engage in an orgy of self-flagellation. None of this should be surprising. Abusers and oppressors rarely acknowledge guilt unless they are forced. And victims always blame themselves. So it was good to see an article, by people who study the very things Cosby was ranting on, say "wait a minute...the Cos might be way off on this one."

I know of course this is a controversial and hot topic in black america. I remember when Bill Cosby first made his comments several summers ago. Most black folks I spoke to agreed with Cosby--out of frustration I suppose, personal experience, etc. Myself and a distinct but vocal minorty, contested Cosby's statements. The debates we had in barber shops and online forums would last weeks. And though it was an uphill battle, we held our ground that Cosby was wrong. And it wasn't because we thought he was airing dirty laundry, or that we did not see problems that existed in varied black communities, or that we did not believe in the basic principles of "do-for-self." We weren't blind. We disagreed with Cosby because of his seemingly blistering attack on the poor, his disparaging of single black mothers, and his continuation of fallacies like the discredited "acting white" hypothesis. Mostly however, we asked if all these mantras of "self responsibility" and "self-help"--put forth by everyone from Bill Cosby to black conservatives to the Million Man March(es)--were allowing the larger 800lb gorilla of inequality, wealth disparity, and more to go unheeded. And I in particular wondered, at what point have we so over-racialized matters (treating all-American problems like "gross materialist consumerism" as endemic of only the black poor) that we miss the forest for the trees?

We asked questions like the following: if Hip Hop is to blame for black-on-black crime, then why was violence so much higher during the 1980s era of much less violent Hip Hop and in some areas (like the South Bronx of the post-Vietnam era early 1970s) even before Hip Hop existed? Whatever the misgivings of our glorification of "thug-lifestyles" in the black community, how different is it from the Stagolee mythos that made heroes of "bad-men" jazz and blues players--who talked about fast lives, sex, drugs, violence and toted weapons? How different is it from the all-American obsession with the bad-boy figure--from Billy the Kid to The Sopranos? Is violence in the hood an anamoly, or a further extension of America's long-held obsession with violence (from the decimation of Native Americans to the Irish gangs of old New York to lynchings and anti-black/chinese riots to the numerous militarist campaigns carried out by the US during the 20th Century, from the Phillippines to Vietnam to Iraq)? Is the act of making Johnny a soldier who is to delight in killing for country, flag, patriotism and oil, far removed from Antown the thug who kills for the block, colors, honor and money? In a country where the populace often votes for charisma, hot-button issues, put a guy they thought was "cool" into the White House, over the guy they thought was too brainy (Bush vs Gore 2000), a country that attempts to replace science with religious dogma, and shows greater pride in entertainers than school teachers, are any notions of black intellectualism any different from America's anti-intellectualism? In fact, since according to statistics it was blacks (especially black women) who thought the Iraqi war would be a bad idea, perhaps we exhibit more intellectualism than white America--particularly white males. Can any of the ailments afflicting the black community be separated from the larger American society? Or is it simply that economic disparity, social oppression, etc. simply allows America's normalized problems to explode in a way that allows us to place a lens directly on it, while missing the larger picture? And are we often so hard on ourselves, we never even stop to savor the accomplishment that after several centuries enduring oppression, we are still here.

Not saying I have all the answers. And I know many disagree. Just saying that for those, like Cosby, who think they do, and that simply finding husbands for single black mothers and telling everyone to just "try harder" or "pray harder" will cure all that ails us, I am highly skeptical. And I think perhaps, we need to expand our focus.

My humble opinion. Peep the article below. Yes it is very-one sided. I figure everyone already knows Cosby's side, as it is the most popularly publicized and accepted as a matter of conventional wisdom. Besides, as I fall on the opposite side of the fence, it was about time someone spoke up for my viewpoint.


Why Bill Cosby is Wrong
Don't Blame Black Culture for Economic Decline


For decades, scholars and opinion makers have been seduced by cultural explanations for economic problems. Recently, comedian Bill Cosby has caught the bug, leading him to inveigh against aspects of black culture he views as intimately linked to problems among African-Americans, from poverty to crime and incarceration.

Mr. Cosby is merely the latest and most visible in a long chain of cultural critics. Researcher Charles Murray (before turning to genetic explanations) and columnist Thomas Sowell have been making the "bad culture" argument about African-Americans for decades. David Brooks has a long-running column in The New York Times linking culture and economic outcomes.This work is misguided at best and destructive at worst.

One key to the success of the cultural argument is the omission of inconvenient facts about social and economic trends. For example, people arguing that African-Americans are suffering from a culture of poverty stress that blacks are much more likely to be poor than whites. True, but this fact misses the most important development about black poverty in recent years: its steep decline during the 1990s.

Black poverty fell 10.6 percentage points from 1993 to 2000 (from 33.1 to 22.5 percent) to reach its lowest level on record. Black child poverty fell an unprecedented 10.7 percentage points in five years (from 41.9 percent in 1995 to 31.2 percent in 2000).

The "culture of poverty" argument cannot explain these trends. Poor black people did not develop a "culture of success" in 1993 and then abandon it for a "culture of failure" in 2001.

What really happened was that in the 1990s, the job market finally tightened up to the point where less-advantaged workers had a bit of bargaining clout. The full-employment economy offered all comers opportunities conspicuously absent before or since. Since 2000, black employment rates have fallen much faster, and poverty rates have risen faster, than the average.

What this episode reveals is how we squander our human resources when slack in the economy yields too few decent employment opportunities for those who want to work.

Black poverty is only the most visible example. The "bad black culture" argument also overlooks positive trends in critical areas such as education, crime and teen pregnancy (pregnancy and birth rates among black teenagers are down 40 percent since 1990).

Those same critics are too dismissive of anti-black discrimination in the labor market. Mr. Cosby says black people use charges of discrimination to avoid dealing with their cultural failings. The Manhattan Institute's John H. McWhorter claims they "spit in the eye of [their] grandparents" when they say their lives are limited by racism. Journalist Juan Williams argues that poor black people are squandering opportunities opened up by the civil rights movement.

Yes, there are far more opportunities available to black Americans today, but the conclusion that racial discrimination is no longer a serious issue is simply not supported by the evidence.

In two recent studies, Princeton University sociologist Devah Pager showed that young black men who have played by the rules and have no criminal record are much less likely to be offered a job than similar white men. In fact, white men with criminal records had an equal or better chance of being hired than did young black men with no record. Contrary to Mr. McWhorter's assertion, ignoring this racial discrimination is "spitting in the eye" of everyone, black and white, who struggled for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Don't think for a nanosecond that we are satisfied with the progress that's been made. Even if black poverty remains low in historical terms, having a quarter of blacks in poverty is a national tragedy. But by creating an erroneous causal link between "bad culture" and black poverty, the "Cosby consensus" prevents the country from recognizing success and building on it to create the economic opportunities that are missing for too many African-Americans.

The cultural argument of the Cosby consensus succeeds because conservatives and liberals both tend to exaggerate the cultural differences between white and black Americans. We forget that white and black audiences enjoyed The Cosby Show in the 1980s; that white and black youths listen to rap today; and, most important, that neither white people nor black people like being poor.

The record is clear: When economic opportunities are available to black Americans, they take them. When opportunities are scarce, they fall behind, and culture has very little to do with it.

Algernon Austin is a sociologist and director of the Thora Institute.

Jared Bernstein is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

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