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July 24, 2005

Is Bill Cosby A Black David Horowitz?

-- by Gary Boatwright

Los Angeles Times Magazine's cover story is a book review by Erin Aubry Kaplan of Michael Eric Dyson's book Is Bill Cosby Right?

"One of the most racist beliefs is because you're black, you know black.
The black experience in America is generally discussed in terms of presumptive simplicity:
"Black people are almost never given the benefit of the doubt, because to do so would be presuming complexity and depth that we don't have, right?" he says a bit testily. "If I can just complexify things"—his term—"that'd be good. I've got to keep eroding that stone of monolithism." . . . There's always been a lag between the complex reality and the simple conversations about us. I'm just asking black people to honor that.
In addition to Cosby, Dyson is directing his ire at self loathing blacks like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly who use the color of their skin to manipulate and reinforce America's racist conventional wisdom.

[Update: Thanks to a heads up from Charles, I have added a link to the full article and corrected my careless citation.]

Dyson is politely asking Cosby to examine what turned him into a self loathing black man:

The worst thing, Dyson says, is that Cosby understands that, or did once. The book quotes from interviews dating back to the '60s in which Cosby acknowledged, if not downright emphasized, ongoing social and historical factors that have contributed to black problems. Not an uncommon view, but remarkable for a man who built a successful career and public image on minimizing race in general, and blackness in particular. "Cosby knows educational inequity and racism," Dyson says. "He's too smart not to know. He has culpable ignorance." So might Cosby simply be a crusader who got mugged by the criminally slow pace of change and flipped orthodoxies in middle age, a black version of David Horowitz? Dyson says maybe, but there's more to it than that. "He could be deeply conservative, but most of us are conservative," he says. "But by making his stuff look exceptional"—by deliberately setting himself apart from the rest of us—"he's not acknowledging that. Why?"

Whether he is aware of it or not, Cosby is playing into the over simplified cultural stereotypes of racist America:
the problem for him is that Cosby "got angry at them, not with them." Dyson says he did not want to slam the comedian nearly as much as he wanted to strenuously argue, as he always does, for the complexity of the modern black condition, especially internal struggles over class, character and image that have been simmering since Reconstruction but in 2005 are boiling over, partly because nobody wants those things to matter as much as they still do. Complexities like these are rarely given room in public dialogues about race, a persistent sin of omission that Dyson says is at the heart of American racism.


Like me, Dyson was most put off by Cosby's offhand condemnation of the least-moneyed, least-educated blacks as "these people" and as the primary source of all that's gone wrong. He says that if we're going to apportion blame, there's plenty to go around, starting with a black middle class that's been busy decoupling its interests from those of the lower class for several decades now and thereby steadily undermining the fortunes of the entire race. And don't get him started on *the broader context of America*—why should Cosby vilify blacks as anti-intellectual, he asks, when most of the high school seniors in the country can't find France on a map? " 'These people'—that's distressing," Dyson muses in a phone interview from Philadelphia. "If he had said 'nigga,' that would have been better. That's actually kinship. 'Hey, nigga!' But 'these people' is worse."

The facts illuminate a more complex tapestry than stereotypes will allow:

By the end of the book—well, halfway through—it's hard not to conclude that Cosby, for all his righteous anger, was way off the mark. Time and again Dyson cites studies, statistics and surveys that, contrary to Cosby's dire assessments, reveal poor and working-class blacks to be patriotic, socially conservative, hard-working, optimistic and much less likely to blame the white man or "the system" for their troubles than most people believe.

Ghettoism is high fashion:
It doesn't help that Cosby refuses to expand the boundaries of what he's really talking about, which isn't the dereliction of the black poor but something bigger: ghettoism. Ghettoism is about the manners and mores of all black people and how they play to white folks, and it used to be that being deemed "ghetto" was a high insult. But with the explosion and exploitation of hip-hop and thug life, there has been such a mad rush to ghettoism through music, fashion, slang and the like that it has become awfully tough—and more than a little hypocritical—to argue that people living the reality are doing, or being, anything wrong. The promiscuity and materialism that Cosby seems to think are emanating exclusively from the black poor are the raw ore of what I call the American ghetto-industrial complex, a vast array of entertainment-related businesses that includes record labels, movie studios, advertising companies, book publishers and video producers.

Dyson and Kaplan are both willing to give Cosby more credit than I am. Cosby is a bitter old fool:
Cosby was wholly disdainful of Dyson in a way I found disheartening, but also illuminating—in the end, Dyson to him is not a compatriot or even a worthy opponent but one of "these people," not uneducated or ghetto but just the wrong kind of black. I realized, finally, that Cosby is angry not about schisms of class or culture or language, but about blackness itself. He's angry that it takes up so much of his time, that it does not seem to be self-sustaining and that it needs so much, too much, to grow and prosper and to get right. He's angry that at the moment blackness, for all its outrageous ubiquity, is declining into a quiet apocalypse. Never a settled matter, blackness now feels horribly inefficient, slippery, not our own, wandering off in a wrong direction the moment we take our eyes off it, falling out of the census here, ballooning to grotesque proportions there. Deep down we'd all love to ignore our color, as we're increasingly admonished to do. But we can't. We shouldn't. The world, and our own consciences—which Cosby has, or else he wouldn't have bothered to say anything at all—won't let us.

Visit Michael Eric Dyson's webpage.

Stop by The Black Illuminator and check out the latest Think Piece, Economic Decline and the Color Line: Pragmatic Radicalism, Part II:

Black America has spent the past quarter century on the defensive against the conservative assault on equality – especially racial equality – inaugurated by the election of Ronald Reagan. The right’s program of reverse Robin Hood economics and smashing the limited instruments of fairness fashioned by liberalism between the end of World War Two and 1980 has been a brilliant political success that has deeply wounded black people.

Conservatives have reconstructed the system of racial inequality in the US by moving away from the racial police state of the Jim Crow era to a free market strategy of economic abandonment and incarceration. Under the new racial dispensation authored by the Republicans under Reagan and the Bush family, *with the approval of the Democrats under the aegis of the Clinton family*, blacks can vote – sometimes – own property, make money, and even marry across any and all color lines.

*What blacks cannot do is enlist the help of government in dismantling the barriers to economic and social equality that the toxic mix of free markets and petty racial hatreds throw in our way*.

But, strange as this may sound, black America may now be strong enough to fashion an economic model of development and justice based on a new mixture of self-reliance and limited progressive politics. The conservative assault on black America has been a nightmare, but it has also cleared the way for a new development path, if we have the courage and patience to take it. *Before outlining this potentially fruitful approach, we must understand how conservatism rebuilt American racism after the demise of Jim Crow*.

Posted by Gary Boatwright at July 24, 2005 3:03 PM

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Comments

Your attribution is not quite correct. The article appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, not Los Angeles Magazine (they are different entities). The full text is available online (free registration required).

Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 24, 2005 4:09 PM

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