Black and White

BLACK AND WHITE….Last week Bill Cosby got up on his soapbox ? again ? and told blacks that they should take more responsibility for their own problems:

“For me there is a time … when we have to turn the mirror around,” he said. “Because for me it is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us. And it keeps a person frozen in their seat, it keeps you frozen in your hole you’re sitting in.”

….”You’ve got to stop beating up your women because you can’t find a job, because you didn’t want to get an education and now you’re (earning) minimum wage,” Cosby said. “You should have thought more of yourself when you were in high school, when you had an opportunity.”

Barbara Ehrenreich begs to disagree:

If Cosby’s worried about poor grammar and so forth, why isn’t he ranting about the Bush 2005 budget, which would end a slew of programs for dropout prevention, recreation and school counseling?

Or, if he’s looking for tantrum fodder, what about the fact that a black baby has a 40 percent chance of being born into poverty? You can blame adults for their poverty ? if you’re mean-spirited enough ? but you cannot blame babies, and that’s, in effect, what we’re talking about here.

As the sociologist Michael Males, who monitors youth-bashing outbreaks, told me: “Younger black America today is struggling admirably against massive disinvestments in schools, terrible unemployment, harsh policing and degrading prejudices, and they’re succeeding amazingly well. They deserve respect, not grown-up tantrums.”

I like Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed was a great book, one that everyone should read whether they agree with her or not.

And hell, I like Bill Cosby too. I haven’t seen anything of his for years, mind you, but my family owned half a dozen of his records when I was growing up. I like people who can make me laugh, even if I was only 10 at the time.

But it’s awfully hard to have much sympathy for either of them in this argument. After all, Cosby surely isn’t dense enough to believe that black poverty is merely the result of laziness and bad grammar, is he? So why not talk about the very real problems of lousy schools, lack of affordable childcare, and racial profiling as well?

At the same time, Ehrenreich and Males must be smart enough to know that increased government spending alone isn’t the answer either. I’m strongly in favor of subsidized childcare, after-school programs, and better job training too ? but by itself it’s not enough. Cosby has a point: culture counts too.

But instead of acknowledging that both sides have something to say in this debate, they just talk past each other. One side blithely insists that young blacks are “succeeding amazingly well” ? a remarkable proposition given that 20% of black men end up in prison at some point in their lives ? and sloughs off Cosby’s comments with a casual contempt they don’t deserve. For his part, Cosby’s contempt seems to be aimed at the very idea that there’s anything more to black problems than blacks themselves. Just suck it up and everything will be OK.

How tedious. But I wonder what you’d get if you locked Ehrenreich and Cosby in a room together for a few hours? If they listened to each other, they might come out with something interesting to say.