The easiest way to become a celebrity in America is to be a dark-skinned conservative. Black conservatives probably have more famous people per capita than any other group in the country (Larry Elder, Walter Williams, Alan Keyes, et al). On the whole, there doesn't appear to be very many of them. In fact, a thorough analysis by the Black Commentator indicates that what is "conservative" by black standards is actually more "centrist" by white standards. If you pay attention to television and radio, however, you might get the impression that Jesse Jackson is about the only black liberal in the entire country. Why is this the case? The controversial comments recently made by Bill Cosby shed some light on the matter.
Speaking at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Cosby attacked poor black people for everything from bad speaking habits to getting shot by the police. Here are a few quotes:
"Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids -- $500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for 'Hooked on Phonics."
"They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English. 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. 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!"
"[Imprisoned black people] are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, [saying] 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"
Cosby also chastised black people for "giving their kids weird names like Ali and Shaniqua," as well as having those kids in the first place, saying "nowadays a woman has eight children with eight different `husbands,' or men or whatever you call them now."
It wasn't long before Cosby's comments were plastered all over right-wing news websites like NewsMax and WorldNetDaily. That's the reason there are so many famous black conservatives -- they get lots of promotion. And they get lots of promotion because they're the most useful tools a white supremacist could ever hope for in promoting his agenda. The fact that they're black shields them from charges of racism or having an ulterior agenda. I'm not accusing Bill Cosby of being a tool of white supremacists or even that he's a conservative, but given the widespread promotion he is receiving from some of the most right-wing, racist elements of our political culture, I think it's safe to say his comments aren't helping anything.
What is even more disturbing is the fact that Cosby is being almost universally praised for his misguided rant, as if bravely stood up and dished out some "straight talk" to an unsuspecting group of self-satisfied race hucksters. A brief scan of the columns people have written about the incident only turned up two that disagreed with Cosby. Most were gushing over with praise. One black columnist grandiosely proclaims, "Cosby openly chastised some black people for our dirty, little secrets. We are exposed." This is some bullshit. The stereotypes Cosby played upon are anything but "secret." They get promoted every night on the television news and get repeated ad nauseum by white people looking to deflect attention away from the fact that racism that still infects this country to its very core.
Obviously, Cosby isn't alone. Nowadays it seems fashionable to blame black people for essentially everything and treat racism as something that only exists in history books. CNN did a recent documentary inspired by the Brown anniversary which was fraught with talk about the alleged anti-intellectualism of black students. One "expert" interviewed said, "If you go into a classroom, you're going to see mostly black heads playing around, chilling. Look at the white kids. They're at attention, they're taking notes." This guy didn't come to my classroom, cause I sure as hell wasn't taking any notes, and I wasn't alone. Later in the show, the narrator praised black kids for "taking a tough look at themselves." The scene then cut to a black student saying, "The only way that they can get these stereotypes is if we put them in their minds."
As readers of Richard Hofstadter's classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life are well-aware, anti-intellectualism is hardly unique to people of color. In fact, it has been part of the American cultural tradition since at least the 18th century. Personally, I wish I had a dime for every time I intentionally watered down my vocabulary when talking to my white jock friends or didn't participate in an interesting class discussion because I didn't want to look like a nerd. I'd probably be a millionaire. So even if there is an element of truth to the notion that black students are afraid of "acting white" by doing well in school there is simply no way it can even begin to account for the disparities that exist in education today (for more on the myths surrounding black anti-intellectualism, see Tim Wise).
In fact, the same is true for everything Cosby said. The behavior he complained about are symptoms of inequality, not the causes. Cosby can sit on his soapbox and complain about ebonics and crime all day. It won't accomplish a damn thing. People don't exist in a vacuum. They are products of their environment. If you want to change the way folks behave then you need to change the conditions that give rise to that behavior. Criticizing people for their personal behavior on an individual basis might make sense, because on an individual basis it might actually work and result in something positive. I'm sure Cosby means well, but when he engages in collective criticism of the entire black community he only helps to reinforce and promote the stereotypes that many white people have about people of color and deflect attention away from the root causes of the problems he hopes to solve.
Justin Felux is a writer and activist based in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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