Of Barack, Bill Cosby, and the Black Community

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Feb 20, 2007 9:37 AM

In a column today meant to confirm that Barack Obama is indeed black, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson turns up this detail about an Obama stop in South Carolina. Talking to a largely black audience:

One of his biggest applause lines -- perhaps predictably, in a college town -- was a call for black Americans to "get over this anti-intellectualism we see in our community sometimes." And when he ended with a rousing "Yes, we can!" set piece, he exited the way every candidate wants to leave any room: with people on their feet, cheering for more.

Isn't that the same message Bill Cosby got reamed by other black leaders for delivering at an NAACP dinner in 2004?

"Judgment of the people in the situation is not helpful. How can you help them is the question," said hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records and the Phat Farm clothing line.

Here's the full text of that speech, and a delightful picture of the Cos ticking off the Jesse.

Now, no one will go after Obama for saying such things. In fact, the audience applauded him enthusiastically. A couple thoughts on why. First, Obama likely delivered a one-liner that folks could safely applaud without having to evaluate their communities, as Cosby made them do with his full-length rant. Cosby was punished because he meant what he said, and he wanted people to feel uncomfortable with it, because that's the way toward fixing the problems he listed. Obama likely just wanted an applause line. Cosby's remarks had teeth, and they were meant to.

Cosby was also punished for delivering his remarks in a very public fashion. It wasn't a conversation confined to the black community, but broadcast to the rest of the country. Obama's remarks, however, were given at a small, mostly black event, and just barely made the last line of one column.

And, finally-- and, I think there are elements of all three involved--could it be that black American leadership like Jesse Jackson and Russell Simmons, and all the others who claim to speak for black America, are out of synch with the constituency for which they claim to speak? Could it be that black Americans who really do want to rid the community of anti-intellectualism don't mind calling out their fellow African-Americans every once in a while?

Obama's remark about anti-intellectualism was likely as devoid of substance as his other remarks on health care and a new kind of politics:

His first big applause line was a call to fix "a health-care system that's broken." Someone in the audience yelled, "We want you to fix it!" and Obama yelled back, "We're going to fix it."

There were more cheers when he reiterated his opposition to the Iraq war, but he really got the crowd going when he talked about the national hunger for "a new kind of politics." People "want something new," he said, and the crowd enthusiastically agreed.

But it was interesting to see him throw that out there. And, given that it was one of his biggest applause lines, it will probably sneak into more stump speeches and perhaps become more prominent as the campaign moves forward. I'm obviously never going to be an Obama voter, because he's liberal, but he's in a great position as the first African-American contender for the White House, to deliver some serious messages to the black community from a position of influence.

I mean, he's Obama-- the savior himself. Wouldn't it be interesting if he chose to lead on this message--delivered more delicately than Cos did it-- and make Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton follow? Probably never happen, but it's a thought.