In defense of Bill Cosby

Posted: Jun 06, 2005 12:00 AM

If we gave ratings to books like we give to films, I would urge that Michael Eric Dyson's new book, Is Bill Cosby Right?Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? be given triple X. Parents, particularly black parents, should read this material with the greatest caution.

Dyson wrote this book to take on Bill Cosby and his campaign to talk about personal responsibility in the black community. The book is wrong about everything. But in addition to being uniformly wrong, it is uniformly dangerous. Any degree to which blacks buy into Dyson's message will translate directly into exacerbating and perpetuating the well known social and economic problems in our community that prompted Cosby's campaign.

Several hundred pages of whining, excuses, and personal attacks on Bill Cosby really just boil down to the following: "Cosby's overemphasis on personal responsibility, not structural features, wrongly locates the source of poor black suffering .... Cosby's insistence on self-help lets society off the hook."

For the last 40 years blacks have heard nothing from their leaders except blaming an unjust and racist America for our problems and prescribing political action and government spending programs as the only way to solve them. The result has been the creation of what is fast becoming a permanent black underclass, devoid of the very attitudes and values that are critical for anyone of any background or color to make it in this world.

Cosby emerges and suggests that if there is going to be hope and a future for this black community, it can only come by forgetting the blame game and accepting that, regardless of what was, every black tomorrow will directly reflect the personal responsibility that every African American takes for his or her life today. For Dyson, this is an "overemphasis on personal responsibility."

Dyson's pretense at insight is to point out that the world is complicated. Is it reasonable, as Cosby is doing, to tell a single black mother, who herself may well be the product of a broken home, and arguably lives in a society that still reeks of racism, that she should assume personal responsibility for her life? Dyson says no. I say yes.

Not only must we transmit this message, but to not do it is to shirk our own personal responsibility. Perhaps the difference between me and Michael Eric Dyson is that I believe that at the end of the day life has rules and values that are absolutely true. I believe these rules and values sustain life itself. What I call perversion, Dyson will call an alternative life style. What I call dysfunctional behavior, Dyson will call personal or cultural expression crucial for self-esteem.

I, of course, cannot speak for Bill Cosby. But it is certainly clear to me that to point out that poor African Americans need to take personal responsibility does not imply that others have no responsibility in trying to help. The difference in opinion between what Cosby is saying and what Dyson claims is not whether to help but how.

Cosby, after all, is trying to help. He is saying "Here is what you need to know. Here are the rules. Take them and live by them." Dyson, from all I have heard from him, rejects traditional rules and values. He thinks he's helping by educating young blacks to remember that where they are is not their fault and where they will be depends on our ability to get government programs to get them there.

In contrast to Dyson's book, a new book that is actually interesting is Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty First Century. Friedman chronicles how technology is shrinking our world and the intense competitive pressures this is placing on an America around which the welfare state has already wrapped its tentacles.

Friedman points out that good parenting and good education is crucial if Americans are going to be ready to take on this new world. Instead of asking "Is Bill Cosby Right?", Dyson might ask "Is David Baltimore Right?." Here is what Baltimore, the Nobel prize-winning president of Caltech, conveyed to Friedman:

"I look at the kids who come to Caltech, and they grew up n families that encouraged them to work hard and to put off a little bit of gratification for the future and to understand that they have to hone their skills to play an important role in the world .... Their parents nurtured them to make sure they realize their potential. I think we need a revolution in this country when it comes to parenting around education."

Sure, blacks can listen to Michael Eric Dyson and make a million excuses why this isn't possible for them. And while they're doing it, they can watch their communities fall farther and farther behind.