Note: Some readers may object to language in the fourth paragraph
Bill Cosby rattled the cages again a fortnight ago in his address before Jesse Jackson's 33rd Annual Rainbow/PUSH Coalition conference in Chicago. Let's look at some of his remarks.
Cosby told the audience that being poor had a different meaning to older generations and said the "housing project was set up for you to move in, move up and move out." Cosby's family moved out of Philadelphia's Richard Allen housing project, and so did mine. I don't know what Cosby's mother told him about being poor, but my mother frequently said, in the middle of one scolding or another, "We have a beer pocketbook but champagne tastes." One of my grandmother's favorite admonitions was "You don't have to be rich to be clean." Yesterday's gross material poverty among blacks is all but gone. In all too many cases, it has been replaced by the worse kind of poverty -- poverty of the spirit.
Bill Cosby also admonished blacks to stop blaming the white man for our problems. "This is a time, ladies and gentlemen," Cosby said, "when we have to turn the mirror around." He's right again. Nobody can sensibly argue that racial discrimination has altogether disappeared. The relevant question is: How much of what we see can be explained by racial discrimination? The 70 percent illegitimacy rate among blacks is devastating, not to mention unprecedented, but can it be blamed on discrimination? Is the white man responsible for today's all-time high number of black single-parent families? What about the crime rate that has turned many black neighborhoods, once stable and civilized, into battlegrounds and economic wastelands?
Cosby also talked about a pathological culture that has emerged among many blacks referring to one another as "niggers" and music that refers to black women as "bitches" and "whores." Added to that pathology are the verbal and physical reprisals against blacks who speak and carry themselves properly and seek to excel academically. I'd sure like to hear the argument for the case where hard work and academic excellence make one a race traitor -- acting white.
What to do? Addressing Bill Cosby's critique is a long, challenging journey, but as with any journey, we're closer to its end by taking the first step, even if it's a small first step. When the fall semester begins, teachers should refuse to accept "I be," "Why you ain't?" and "Where you is?" They might ask students who use such language whether they know anyone who's successful and speaks that way, except Snoop Doggy Dog. They might also refuse to accept poor enunciation like "axe" for ask and "wiff" for with. Check it out with Cosby if you don't believe me: None of the Richard Allen kids he and I grew up with spoke that way.
Inner-city school teachers should show some honesty and let students and their parents know that those A's and B's received on past report cards are phony and at best only C's, D's and possibly F's anywhere else. Fraudulent grades exacerbate other problems. When a black kid has all A's and B's and makes the dean's list, what will he and his parents blame for his failure to get a decent SAT score, get into college or get a job? They're going to blame it on racial discrimination. All they'll see is that white kids with A's and B's do well and their kids with the same grades do not.
Finally, along with these tiny first steps, black parents, teachers, politicians and civil rights organizations should condemn the conduct of young blacks who do not take advantage of today's educational opportunities -- condemn it as a gross betrayal of the memory, struggle, sacrifice, sweat and blood of our ancestors.