May 17 saw several gatherings commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. But the event held in Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall will be the one to be remembered because of Bill Cosby's remarks, which won him scathing criticism from some in the black community.
For years, I've argued that most of the problems many black Americans face today have little or nothing to do with racial discrimination. For the most part, the most devastating problems encountered by a large segment of the black community are self-inflicted. Bill Cosby mentioned several of them, such as black parents who'll buy their children expensive clothing rather than something educational, poor language spoken by many children and adults, and criminals who prey on the overwhelmingly law-abiding residents of black neighborhoods.
After Cosby's remarks, some in the audience laughed and applauded, but, according to The Washington Post, the black "leadership" in attendance, the head of the NAACP, the head of the NAACP legal defense fund and the president of Howard University were "stone-faced."
In a recent column, my colleague Thomas Sowell explained, "Bill Cosby and the black 'leadership' represent two long-standing differences about how to deal with the problems of the black community. The 'leaders' are concerned with protecting the image of blacks, while Cosby is trying to protect the future of blacks, especially those of the younger generation."
Bill Cosby and I differ in age by one year -- I'm older. We both spent part of our youth, in the 1940s and 1950s, growing up in North Philadelphia's Richard Allen housing project. Being poor then was different from being poor now. My sister and I were rare among Richard Allen's residents. Our parents were separated, but nearly every other kid lived in a two-parent household. Black teen pregnancy was relatively rare and just a tiny fraction of today's. During those days, many residents rarely locked their doors until the last person came home. Hot summer nights saw many people fearlessly sleeping in their yards or on their balconies.
Today, less than 40 percent of black children live in two-parent families, compared to 70 percent and 80 percent in earlier periods. Illegitimacy, at 70 percent, is unprecedented in black history. Between 1976 and 2000, over 50 percent of all homicides in the United States were committed by blacks, and 94 percent of the time, the victim was black. These are devastating problems, but are they caused by racism, and will spending resources fighting racial discrimination solve them?
Don't give me any of that legacy-of-slavery nonsense unless you can explain why all of these problems were not worse during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at a time when blacks were much closer to slavery, were much poorer, faced more discrimination and had fewer opportunities.
With all the opportunities available today, unavailable when Cosby and I were youngsters, black youngsters who dedicate themselves to academic excellence are attacked both verbally and sometimes physically for "acting white" and for being "Oreos" and "brainiacs." California Berkeley professor John McWhorter says, "Insidious anti-intellectualism is the prime culprit in the school-performance gap between whites and blacks, which cuts across class and income lines." He adds that the rap music culture "retards black success by the reinforcement of hindering stereotypes and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly authentic response to a presumptively racist society."
In at least two important ways, black America is a study of contrasts. By any measure, as a group, black Americans have made greater gains over some of the highest hurdles in the shortest span of time than any other racial group in human history. At the same time, for a large segment of the black community, these gains are elusive and will remain so under the current civil rights vision.
Bill Cosby's bold comments might be what's necessary to get an honest and fruitful discussion going within the black community, and for that, we all owe him thanks.