Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004  

Analysis: Cosby promotes ignorance

My initial reaction to reading about comedian Bill Cosby's remarks at an event commemorating the end of racial segregation was to dismiss them as ill-considered. The only response I intended to make was to drop my old friend Teddy Shaw, head of the Ink Fund, a line. But, reaction in the conservative blogosphere, which has used the statements as an opportunity to bash African-Americans anew, has led me to to reconsider.

CNN offers a sample of what Cosby said.

Speaking at a commemoration of the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, Cosby, a longtime education advocate, cited elevated school dropout rates for inner-city black students and criticized low-income blacks for not using the opportunities the civil rights movement won for them.

`These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around,'' Cosby said at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund observance.

``I can't even talk the way these people talk, 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is' ... and I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk,'' Cosby said, according to published reports. ``And then I heard the father talk ... Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth.''

Cosby went on to imply that imprisonment of African-Americans, even for minor offenses, is acceptable. Indeed, the various excerpts I've read from his speech have a common theme: Poor black people are dysfunctional and it is solely their fault.

Individuals who want to believe black people are inherently inferior or naturally pathological are having a field day courtesy of Bill Cosby (pictured). At Blogcritics, a large Right Wing blog, a youthful Neandertal has revived the urban myth that poor African-American kids wear $500 basketball shoes. And old codger from Texas claims African-Americans breed too much, and 'rut like horny fruit flies.' A Libertarian who says Rosa Parks may deserve to be beaten for her role in the civil rights movement has also contributed to the discussion. (Don't ask.)

The response is no surprise to longterm observers of American race relations. Too much of the white American population lies in wait for opportunities such as the one Cosby provided. They can then parade baseless beliefs they normally impose on family and friends privately publicly. The involvement of a person of color is treated as permission to do so.

My objections to Cosby's comments are twofold.

First, the impressions he has conveyed are false. Anyone who knows anything about how dialects are maintained knows he hasn't a clue what he is talking about. The reason dialects continue to exist is isolation. Poor blacks and Hispanics are the most likely to be isolated -- in neighborhoods, schools, jobs, etc. So, the speech patterns developed during slavery and peonage continue. To imply people purposely seek to speak a dialect is ludicrous. It also ignores who is responsible for the isolation of African-Americans and Hispanics -- white Americans. People of color did not create or maintain either segregation de jure or segregation de facto. By ignoring both the anthropology of dialect and the conditions that maintain it, Cosby blames those suffering the impact while letting those responsible off the hook.

He does something similar in regard to the criminal justice system and the minority poor. About 30 percent of the American population has had some engagement with the criminal justice system. That proportion dwarfs the share for any other country in the world. One of the reasons why is that our society defines criminality too loosely. A person accused of a minor infraction is stigmatized as a criminal here, while he would be not be elsewhere. Once the initial stigmatization occurs, the person will have difficulty differentiating himself from people who engage in truly harmful behavior. Cosby has encouraged an already alarming situation by saying it is justified. A person with any legitimate insight into the problems of the criminal justice system would not have said what Cosby did.

My other objection to Cosby's comments is that he is providing aid and comfort to the enemy -- bigots. The people who will embrace him as a result of his inaccurate and inconsiderate remarks do not have the best interest of low-income and/or minority Americans in mind. If it were possible, they would impose even more suffering on that segment of the population than it is enduring. There are people legitimately concerned about improving the bleak lives of the poor, but they are not the same folks who are applauding Bill Cosby.

People joke about Cosby's Ph.D. at Temple University, his alma mater. They say it was a gesture of vanity, buttering up a celebrity who lacked the ability to actually earn a doctorate, but can afford to contribute generously to the school's endowment fund. The ignorance revealed by Cosby's remarks at the Ink Fund dinner makes me wonder if that interpretation is accurate.

posted by J. | 7:39 PM