Malign Condescension - or Benign Neglect?

Jonah Goldberg
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Posted: Jul 09, 2004 12:00 AM

By now you've probably heard about what Bill Cosby's up to. On May 17, at a Washington, D.C. event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, Cosby delivered a jaw-dropping tirade on the failure of many lower-class blacks to get their acts together.

"I am talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange [prison] suit," Cosby said. "Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you didn't know that he had a pistol? . In all of this work, we cannot blame white people." He was particularly tough on poor black youth. Or, as he put it, "people with their hats on backwards, pants down around the crack."

Cosby says he was motivated to speak out after talking to Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey here in Washington. Ramsey had just attended a vigil for a 12-year-old girl who was killed when a stray bullet struck her in the head. "People yell about us enforcing the curfew, but the real issue is, why don't you know where your child is," Ramsey told the Washington Post.

Since then Cosby hasn't backed down. He's been defending his remarks on black radio shows and at conferences, pointing to the horrifying trends in black crime and black education, and saying again and again that the government can't do the job of parents.

Now obviously conservatives, white and black, are eating this stuff up. However, it should be noted that Cosby is no political conservative. He is in fact a very liberal Democrat who just happens to recognize the limits of social policy.

And while it's easy to find comfort in what Cosby is saying, conservatives should find even more solace in what he's doing.

Leftists, both white and black, have always warned that poor blacks would starve if government stopped "helping" them - or they'd turn to crime, riot, spontaneously combust, whatever. Personally, I've always found the notion condescending and racist that blacks would turn animal without the domesticating influence of government spoon-feeding.

Racist or not, the reverse has largely proved true. After Bill Clinton signed welfare reform, for example, poor black women didn't starve, they didn't go wilding - they got jobs. By contrast, government "help" coincided with almost unrelenting growth in family break-up and violence among low-income blacks. We can argue about how much government aid helped the black middle class, but that is irrelevant to Cosby's point. For some irreducible number of blacks, government help simply cannot solve the problem.

And neither can new crusades against racism, real or perceived. As Bill Cosby observed: "People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we've got these knuckle-heads walking around. . The lower-economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for their kids - $ 500 sneakers, for what? And won't spend $ 200 for 'Hooked On Phonics.' "

Conservatives have long argued that the best thing for the black community is, in the late Pat Moynihan's celebrated (though misunderstood) phrase, a policy of "benign neglect." Most people faced with the choice of sinking or swimming will swim. And there's no reason to believe, conservatives argued, that blacks wouldn't swim like anybody else if they had to. Many immigrants come to this country far poorer than the average poor black but still work their way into the middle class, because they bring with them a set of values our society tends to reward. They also usually have an ethnic social network waiting for them, which helps them get on their feet.

Why should blacks be any different? If blacks were cut off without a dime from the federal government, non-racist conservatives argued, blacks would develop, individually and as a community, the habits and institutions necessary for as decent a life as anybody could expect - much as they had, ironically, during segregation. That's not an argument for segregation, of course, but for the sort of self-help blacks relied on before the government started "helping" them. As countless callers to black radio point out, that self-help involved shaming those who were letting the rest of the community down.

Not through lack of trying, we've reached the point of benign neglect. Not because government doesn't want to help but because those most in need of it can't even be bothered to accept that help. The exhaustion of policy options is perhaps best illustrated by the fad for slavery reparations. Tell me: How would that help parents who are willing to spend $500 on sneakers but not $200 on "Hooked on Phonics"? Bill Cosby knows the answer, and he should be congratulated for shaming those who deserve - and need - to be shamed.