Is Bill Cosby's personal responsibility message unfair to poor Blacks? No. Cosby is right in making us think about these things.
For them, the problem in inner cities is that America has no room for Black people without college degrees. Take this letter to The New York Times last year on why Compton in Los Angeles is no longer the stable suburb of two-parent families it was before the '70s: "The factory jobs are gone, and Compton is drug-infested. It may be useful to say 'get a good education and there's an engineering job waiting for you in Silicon Valley,' but that socio-intellectual distance is enormous. To address the problems of the inner city, some kind of viable economic structure needs to exist to help fathers act like fathers."
It's that old chestnut, Sociology 101. Factory jobs left cities. There were no other jobs for men without college. So anything going on in the inner city is the inevitable result of an unlevel playing field, and until it's level, things will stay just as they are.
This idea is in our music. "There's a lot of rap with something to say," we are told. Then, listen to what a lot of it says, including "conscious" rap: that there are no jobs for Black men in the 'hood.
Never mind how counterintuitive this idea is. Dark-skinned immigrants come to this country and make a living. For that matter, Black Americans are working steadily all over the country.
The writer, speaker or "conscious" rapper telling us there are no jobs for his people likely passes by Black security guards every day, and neither they nor anyone else sees that guard as a rare specimen. What color is the guy who installed your cable TV? Or the UPS man? Did he go to college? Was his high school likely even top-notch?
We accept that the Earth is round even though it looks fiat in daily experience. In the same way, we accept that Black men without college degrees can't get jobs because factories are no longer waiting to hire them--while watching Black men without college degrees driving trains, delivering mail and fixing phone lines.
As Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint tell us in their book Come On People, community colleges offer low-cost vocational training, as well as GEDs, to people who don't feel like spending four years learning about Shakespeare and World War I. Mechanics, dental hygienists and emergency medical technicians can make solid middle-class incomes. Cosby is right in making us think about these things.
Darnell used to be ready with his lunch pail to make tires at the Ford plant. But the plant moved to Beijing. Does that mean all Darnell can do to keep alive is sell drugs, and that since he can only make so much money doing that, we can't expect him to help raise his kids?
What about his brother Eugene who works as a building inspector and lives a decent life? Building inspectors don't have college degrees. Eugene is not a superman. He just took a different path than Darnell.
People who think Cosby is wrong think Eugene is beside the point. But Eugene is not an exception. Really--think about the Black America you know. There's a Eugene for every Darnell. All we need to do is show the Darnells that it's not as hard to become Eugene as it might look.
Sure, Cosby was a little grouchy in the way he first put forth his message. But Come On People is full of common sense and useful advice.
The message that we are powerless until there is no racism, the factory jobs come back and the basic operations of our economy and government turn upside-down is a hopeless one.
What use is it to us when a rapper says since there's no work, ghetto violence is "the way it is"? What use is it to us when social scientist Gary Orfield says "we're pumping out boys with no alternative" but to sell drugs?
What do people like this have to say about Eugene? Why do they find him so uninteresting? If I could make Black people read two books right now, they would be Come On People, and what I regard seriously as its companion, Tyler Perry's Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, an address from Perry's Madea character to Black women that is as dead-on as Come On People.
We need a positive message. Too many have lost touch with how to make the best of ourselves and our kids despite obstacles, and despite that the playing field may never be completely level.
A positive message teaches us how to do that. That message is Cosby's.
John McWhorter is Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and weekly columnist for the New York Sun. He is the author of Losing the Race, an anthology of race writings, Authentically Black and Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America.
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|Title Annotation:||TWO SIDES|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2008|
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