You may recall the May 2004 controversy over Bill Cosby’s so-called “Pound Cake speech,” also referred to in some quarters as the “Ghettosburg Address,” in which Cosby attacked what he regarded as the dynamics of dysfunction in black America.
There’s a part of the speech that is profoundly difficult to even read, in light of Ferguson:
These are people going around stealing Coca Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, “The cops shouldn’t have shot him.” What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?
How can one not read this without thinking of the folks who have attempted to rationalize Michael Brown’s death, on the grounds that he somehow had it coming because he allegedly stole cigars from a convenience store?
I can’t help wondering if Cosby regrets having delivered that speech–if he regrets the fact that he unintentionally gave some Americans a rationale to excuse violence committed against blacks.
I thought about this during the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman controversy, when Fox News Channel personality Geraldo Rivera suggested that Martin’s clothing played a role in his death:
When you, when you see a kid walking…when you see a kid walking down the street, particularly a dark-skinned kid like my son Cruz, who I constantly yelled at when he was going out wearing a damn hoodie or those pants around his ankles. Take that hood off, people look at you and they — what do they think? What’s the instant identification, what’s the instant association?
Rivera seemed to be borrowing some of his rhetoric from Cosby’s 2004 speech:
Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up?
In 2013, CNN’s Don Lemon also seemed to borrow Cosby’s rhetoric, generating tremendous criticism for appearing to rationalize racism.
Here’s the thing: Like Don Lemon, I want teenagers who happen to wear low-hanging pants to pull their goddamn pants up too. Like Geraldo Rivera, I would prefer that teenagers dress in a way that doesn’t generate suspicion based on stereotypes. Like Bill Cosby, I would like teenagers to think twice about taking property that doesn’t belong to them. However, I don’t want cops shooting those teenagers to death and getting away with it just because they don’t.
Sadly, the “He had it coming!” mentality is permanently pervasive in this country. Consider this letter in today’s Los Angeles Times:
Bias exists everywhere; we are constantly assessing others based on cues. That does not imply bigotry; rather, it is borne of natural survival instincts and brain functions.
If I have the opportunity to meet a well-dressed African American man in a business environment, my bias is he has likely overcome greater challenges than his business peers of other colors.
Place that same African American man in a hoodie on Figueroa Street as I walk from dinner in downtown Los Angeles back to the Bonaventure Hotel at 11 p.m., and the threat neurons in my brain are on fire. I’d have the same response if a tall white man with swastika tattoos walked into my elevator.
In my first professional job, at 23, we were told to read the book, “Dress for Success.” One of the lines we were told was, “It isn’t right, it isn’t wrong, it just is.” We were being told we all have the ability to influence (note that I am not saying “control completely”) the bias lens through which we are viewed, as individuals or as groups.
So long as the “He had it coming!” mentality exists in the United States, the chances that conflicts like Ferguson won’t happen in the near future are slim and none. And Slim? That brother just left town, wearing a hoodie and low-hanging pants.