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Is Bill Cosby's personal responsibility message unfair to poor Blacks? Yes. Self-help doesn't negate society's obligation to all people.

Let's get this out of the way from the start: Only a fool or a dishonest person would deny that everybody, including the poor, ought to be responsible for themselves and for how they act in the world. But we must not only demand responsibility of the poor; we must also discuss our responsibility to the poor.

Bill Cosby thinks that if only the poor were willing to work harder, act better, get educated, stay out of jail and parent more effectively, their problems would go away. It's hard to argue with any of that, but one could do all of this and still be in bad shape at home, work or school.

For instance, in our economy, where low-skilled work is all but gone, all the right behavior in the world won't create better jobs for the poor. And personal responsibility can't lower the unemployment rate. The 8.9 percent Black unemployment rate is twice that for Whites. For Black men, the unemployment rate is even higher, at 9.5 percent, compared with 4 percent for White men. The median weekly income of Black men age 16 and older who worked full time was 78 percent of White men's income. Plus, the minimum wage has plummeted nearly 35 percent since 1968. So even though most of the poor are working, they're not getting fairly paid.

Personal responsibility alone can't fix that, but our social responsibility to the poor can. Martin Luther King said that when our society places "the responsibility on its system, not on the individual, and guarantees secure employment or guaranteed income, dignity will come within the reach of all." King believed that the obsession with personal responsibility for the poor was wrong because it let society off the hook. And blasting the poor is misled. "We do much too little to assure decent, secure employment," King said. "And then we castigate the unemployed and underemployed for being misfits and ne'er-do-wells. We still assume that unemployment usually results from personal defects; our solutions therefore largely tend to be personal and individual." Instead, we need to look at "the causes and cures of the economic misfortunes" of the poor and seek to "establish income security."

For those who say, "Just get a good education and you'll get a good job," things aren't quite that easy. Seventy percent of Black students in the nation attend schools in inner cities that are composed largely of minority students. These schools are often located in poor neighborhoods with far fewer resources and a lower tax base than suburban schools. And the education that poor kids get shows. Personal responsibility alone can't fix poor neighborhoods or lousy schools, but social responsibility should prompt us to argue for greater resources and educational parity.

It doesn't take a bunch of money to love your kids and pay attention to them. But if you're working two jobs with no benefits, taking time off to attend a conference with teachers may cost you precious resources--or even one of those jobs. It's hard enough to parent with ample resources; poor parents are often caught in a bind of choosing between spending time with their children or working for the few dollars they earn to take care of them. It's not a choice they should have to make. If we work for child care and better jobs for the poor--and for better health care too--then they might be able to exercise their responsibility more fully.

Should we take responsibility for family planning to stop flyby-night baby-making? Yes, but the numbers have actually gone down: In 1970, there were 72 pregnancies per 1,000 for Black females between the ages of 15 and 17, while in 2000, there were 30.9 pregnancies per 1,000. Should the poor stop killing each other? Of course, but that won't be achieved solely by marches against homicide that both me and Mr. Cosby have led in Philadelphia. It also takes community policing--and more quality work won't hurt.

Should the poor stay out of jail? Sure, but we can't deny that society locks our children up for offenses that bring White kids a mere slap on the wrist. That doesn't give us a license to misbehave; we shouldn't wait until poverty is destroyed to act responsibly. But as we fight poverty, we increase the likelihood that the vulnerable will be more responsible. (Although irresponsibility among intellectuals, comedians, leaders and preachers suggests the poor are often unfairly targeted while the sins of the rich are barely noticed.)

Should the poor practice self-help? King said it's "all right to say to a man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it's a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps." If we're going to hold poor people responsible, let's give out more boots.

Michael Eric Dyson is University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and is author of sixteen books, including Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?
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Title Annotation:TWO SIDES
Author:Dyson, Michael Eric
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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