On the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision on Brown vs. Board of Education, which began the end of racial segregation being defended as "separate but equal," an anniversary party was thrown at Washington's historic Constitution Hall. The biggest name on the program was TV star Bill Cosby, and he packed the biggest -- and most unexpected -- wallop.
Cosby did not come boasting of progress, basking in satisfaction or marking a half-century of racial uplift. Instead, he slapped the audience with the rhetorical equivalent of a cold fish. In Cosby's big picture, too many black Americans today aren't raising their children correctly.
He lamented the upbringing of lower-income black children in particular. "They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English," he exclaimed. "I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is' ... And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk ... Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads ... You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!"
It was no doubt additionally controversial when he proclaimed that many young black men in prison today are not "political criminals" but guilty of real crimes. "These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake, and then we run out and we are outraged, (saying) 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"
Parents who lament their children in prison jumpsuits were challenged: "Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you didn't know he had a pistol? Where is the father?"
Cosby's remarks drew some laughter, and some unease. Ted Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was angry, and he immediately followed up at the podium by suggesting that systematic racial discrimination was still to blame. Others protested. Black academic Michael Eric Dyson complained in the papers that Cosby's comments "betray classist, elitist viewpoints that are rooted in generational warfare."
Some younger people dismissed Cosby as sounding like somebody's cranky grandpa, an old codger lecturing to sit up straight, respect your elders, and use nouns and verbs in their proper order. But this wasn't just old Cosby. It was the creed of the young Cosby, too.
He was never just a television star. He was the first real television role model for black America. He didn't make his way into America's hearts with anger but with humor. He didn't win over whites by laughing about all our racial differences but about our common humanity. The "generational warfare" isn't coming from Cosby, but from the "thug life" theorists selling the black community nothing but hate, greed and lust to a thumping rap beat -- three serious obstacles to black progress.
Some intellectualizing types are actually suggesting Cosby failed to grasp that ungrammatical English -- or ignorance to the ear of the average American -- is actually precious folklore. On ABC's "Good Morning America," Time magazine cultural critic Christopher John Farley explained that he respected standard English, "but I think it's also important to respect nonstandard English. I think it has an important role to play in the development of language, and we should respect that. In terms of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston ... even the music of Bob Marley uses nonstandard English to create poetry and to bring joy to people."
Do you suppose Mr. Farley earned his job at Time magazine talking or writing that kind of "poetry"? Would his editors today respect his use of "non-standard English" if he employed it for next week's magazine? If it isn't acceptable for Mr. Farley in the workplace, how dare he encourage it for black children!
Bill Cosby has given millions of his own fortune back to the black community, but his words and actions might mean more than the money. His television career has done more than entertain. It has helped build a multiracial culture demanding excellence as well as racial harmony. Cosby's critics are offering the opposite: excuses instead of excellence, rage instead of humanity. He deserves a nationwide standing ovation for speaking out.