In May of 2004, the NAACP held a gathering to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the court decision that struck down Plessy v. Ferguson and declared that the separate but equal doctrine was inherently unequal and, thus, unconstitutional. One of the speakers that evening was comedian, actor, and education activist Bill Cosby. What Cosby said did not go over well with many attendees and others who heard or read his words later.
He was very critical of black parenting and black youths. Here are some highlights:
. . . in our cities and public schools we have 50% dropout. In our neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father . . .
I’m talking about parents who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where you were when he was eighteen, and how come you didn’t know he had a pistol?
. . . women having children by five, six different men. Under what excuse? I want someone to love me. And as soon as you have it, you forget to parent. Grandmother, mother, and great grandmother in the same room raising children, and the child knows nothing about love or respect of any of the three of them.
As stated above, criticism of Cosby’s words came swiftly. One of the most outspoken critics was another black man, Michael Eric Dyson, author, and, in 2004, professor of Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
To say that Dyson was a critic is an understatement. He was so upset with Cosby’s speech that he wrote an entire book condemning it. He did not mince words: “[Cosby’s comments] betray classist, elitist viewpoints rooted in generational warfare. [Cosby] was ill-informed on the critical and complex issues that shape people’s lives.” Dyson even challenged Cosby’s credentials to be a racial spokesman and critic: “He has flatly refused over the years to deal with blackness and color in his comedy.” Apparently, Cosby’s real problem was that he had never been down for the struggle, and, thus, lost any credibility when he talked about race.
But what about Cosby’s criticism? Regardless of the source, is the argument still valid? According to Dyson, illegitimacy is not the result of personal choice. Poor black parents face “structural barriers” that prevent them from being good parents, such as “welfare reform, dwindling resources, export of jobs, and ongoing racial stigma.” Dyson had a solution: “We must acknowledge the plight of both poor black (single) mothers and poor black fathers, and the lack of social support they confront.” In other words, the government must do more.
But with the illegitimacy rate in the black community in 2004 at 69.3%, how did Dyson explain that away? He didn’t. Instead, he pointed out that some wealthy white people have children born out of wedlock, and, therefore, the conclusion to be drawn was that “not only poor people do desperate things.”
So, a decade ago, having children without a husband was an act of desperation? Was a lack of government largesse a cause of exploding illegitimacy in the black community? According to economist Walter Williams, the marriage rates for blacks from 1890 to 1940 was higher than that of whites. In the 1950s, only 18% of black households were headed by a single female. All this was long before the Civil Rights Movement and before the Great Society, which created the welfare state as we know it. Jim Crow laws were common in many states, and undisguised racism could easily be found. If desperation was going to be evident, wouldn’t it have been more ubiquitous decades ago? Yet, somehow, despite the negative atmosphere in many places, black women managed to wait for marriage to have children.
So, in 2004, one black man looked at his brothers and sisters and basically said, “The problems of our society are mostly self-inflicted, and the solutions to our problems can be found in hard work, discipline, and self-control.” Another black man said to his brothers and sisters, “Our problems are not our fault. The ‘system’ has stacked the deck. You can’t really succeed because ‘the man’ will not allow that to happen.”
And now ten years have passed, and whose analysis of the plight of black America has prevailed? Certainly not Cosby’s.
Williams points out that today in America, the illegitimacy rate among blacks is 75%, and in some cities, it is nearly 90%. The poverty rate for blacks is 36%, and “most black poverty is found in homes run by a single mother.” But for married black couples, it is only 8%. With the destruction of the black family comes crime. Approximately seven thousand blacks are murdered each year, and in 94% of the cases, the perpetrator is another black. Williams writes, “Though blacks are 13% of the nation’s population, they account for more than 50 percent of the homicide victims.”
As long as apologists like Dyson want to attribute the difficulties in the black community to endemic racism, nothing will change for the better. Justifying unjustifiable behavior, whether the person is black, white, or brown, only will beget more of the same. And what a great disservice this is to young people.
Interestingly, Dyson’s biography is a picture of great achievement. (Check it out on Wikipedia.) Being a black man, how did he make it? Clearly it was by hard work, discipline, and self-control. So why can’t that work for his brothers and sisters? Why does he expect so little from them?