In his most recent book, author and Detroit native Michael Eric Dyson — aka the No. 1 “hip-hop intellectual” — wants to know Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? Since Dyson makes it clear from Page 1 that he thinks Cosby’s well-publicized attacks on the black poor are dead wrong, then the black middle class has apparently lost its mind.
As a lifelong member of the black middle class, I have to say that this was a very disturbing revelation. To work as diligently as I have to keep my mind in good working order, only to discover that somewhere along the line a fuse got blown between the ears and I went crazy without even knowing — it’s a pretty scary thing.
But in all seriousness, it was just a year ago that Cosby went before the NAACP and let loose with his now infamous harangue over the failings of the black poor. That Dyson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has now cranked out a 244-page (not including notes and index) response suggests that Cosby managed to piss him off big-time. So much so that Dyson feels the issues must be tackled head-on in the rough-and-tumble arena of public debate. This can’t be swept under the rug.
In an aggressively combative spirit, Dyson sets out to discredit Cosby’s argument that “the lower-economic and lower-middle-economic class people are not holding up their end in this deal,” that poor blacks have become an embarrassment to the race. Cosby lambastes the black poor for everything from the names they give their children to their lack of parenting skills and unwillingness to accept responsibility for their condition; Dyson swings back with the counterargument that Cosby should pick on somebody his own size and stop beating up on the weakest, most traumatized and defenseless group of people among us. Cosby says that the time has come for blacks to take responsibility for themselves and stop blaming white people for all of our ills; Dyson says that to divorce the wretched condition of the black poor from the wrecking ball of white racism and white supremacy is to curse a fallen tree without regard for the fact that its roots have been cut away.
Dyson is a very smart guy, and he knows how to lay out an argument. That much is obvious. I also think his underlying theme asking that we take a more compassionately understanding and better-informed view of the poor before allowing ourselves to be drawn into the current of criticism and ridicule is a good one. I know Dyson is right that there is a widening class rift between the black poor and the black elite and middle class, and that each side often views the other with disdain and even hatred. I have heard poor blacks go on at length about how “those niggers always think they’re better than us” just as I have heard more well-to-do blacks go on at equal length about “those ghetto niggers.” I have family members and good friends on both sides of that fence, so I’m well aware of the heated emotions.
What Dyson doesn’t discuss enough, however, is that it is not just the black middle class that is hurling insults at the black poor for their perceived failings and shortcomings, and it’s not the white man either. Dyson voices the concerns of many that America’s No. 1 Dad is providing ammo and cover to grateful racists. But some of the most vicious verbal attacks against the black poor I’ve ever heard have come from the black poor themselves. Do you want to really hear somebody talk bad about the way young hip hoppers wear their pants too low or blast their rap music too loud in the hood, or how too many young girls are having babies with no knowledge of parenting skills while the boys move on to their next conquest? Well, just ask some of their neighbors. But be sure to wear an asbestos suit before posing the question because the fire coming out of their mouths will be sure to burn. The troubled behavior and trauma that other folks either read about in the morning paper or see on the evening news is the type of trauma and behavior that they have to deal with every day and every night. For them this is not a news story or an interesting subject for a sociological study — this is real life. I might also add that black comedians such as Chris Rock have lampooned poor blacks and received thunderous applause and riotous laughter in reply.
This probably explains why some of those who applauded the loudest and stood in line the longest during Cosby’s tour (abruptly suspended due to some rather troubling allegations against Cosby himself) weren’t middle-class or elite blacks. Rather, they were poor black folk who could identify with what Cosby was saying. Although Dyson admits that this type of self-criticism, even self-flagellation, occurs among the black poor, he argues, for one thing, that middle-class blacks are much more likely than the poor to voice these sentiments. (I’d say it’s a close call). And he goes on to argue that Cosby’s comments caused more damage because of the wide national media exposure they received (even though his speech was originally delivered away from the glare of TV cameras at an NAACP commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education).
So what really seems to be bothering Dyson, isn’t just what Cosby said (he repeatedly points out that Cosby is out of his depth when playing the role of racial critic, especially since he built most of his career on being rather race-neutral), but where he said it. Cosby is accused of exposing this ugly aspect of “family” warfare to “outsiders” without giving those outsiders the context of a more complete picture of the problem. Dyson is also upset that Cosby, who once spoke much more in defense of the black poor and what they have to face, has veered so radically away from that message in recent years and has now chosen to attack them instead.
As I said before, I agree with Dyson that poor blacks have enough to worry about without trying to shield themselves from ridicule and insults from those who have managed to steer clear of the hellhole that is black poverty. Dyson is also right that poor blacks aren’t the only ones responsible for disturbing behavior. Poor whites and members of other races living in similarly tough conditions exhibit much of the same behavior. And Dyson is right that it will require much more than criticism to heal black poverty, it will require a virtual army of long overdue remedies working in concert.
He’s right again when he says Dr. Cosby isn’t an intellectual and isn’t one to exhibit charts, graphs, and statistics to make his point as is a Dr. Michael Eric Dyson or a Dr. Cornel West, but this doesn’t mean he isn’t qualified to speak out in anger at what he sees, nor does it mean that he is all wrong. Cosby has hit a nerve because he’s isn’t the only one enraged at what is going on. Although his approach may have been over-the-top, I believe his heated response to the tragic conditions he sees are similar to what one would do aboard a plane about to crash into a mountainside: He screamed.
Cosby didn’t scream because he hates the plane, he just doesn’t want to see the plane go down in flames.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to email@example.com
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