Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint have been barnstorming the country ever since they released their diatribe against the Hip Hop generation, “Come on, People!” They were on a panel at Howard University a week or two after the massive march on Jena. Howard students were polite and defenential toward Cosby and Poussaint, but they were much more enthusiastic a few hours later when I joined several Jena 6 parents on stage.
This all started back in 2004 when Cosby addressed a Washington gala on the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. Instead of honoring the ground-breaking world of Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund, Cosby lit into “the lower income folk” in the black community. Black people needed to stop blaming white folks for all their problems, Cosby said. The time had come to move beyond the victim mentality.
Ted Shaw, the newly minted lead counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, followed the Coz to the podium. Scrapping the polite speech he had prepared for the occasion, Shaw launched into an impromptu call for a modern civil rights movement. As a case in point, he cited Tulia, Texas, where, he told the audience, 47 innocent black people were arrested on the word of a racist white police officer. In other words, some poor black people really are victims.
When I ran into Ted Shaw in Jena last year, I reminded him of his run-in with Bill Cosby. I could see the pain in his eyes. No one enjoys mixing it up with a cultural icon.
That hasn’t protected Cosby from the wrath of the black intelligentsia, however. He has been accused of selling out the civil rights movement, for blaming the victim, and for aiding and abetting white conservatives. Michael Eric Dyson’s “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind” may have offered the most scorching critique.
Cosby and Poussaint were on the Rachel Maddow show last night, fresh from a date with Meet the Press. The change in tone was striking. I didn’t hear any diatribes against the black underclass in these interviews. The comments were more constructive and respectful than they were five years ago when Cosby began his stint as the conscience of black America.
How do we explain the change in Cosby’s style? Two words: Barack Obama.
Fearful of being defined as “the black candidate,” Obama didn’t talk about race much during his marathon two-year campaign. But when incendiary clips from Jeremiah Wright’s sermons started airing non-stop, Obama addressed the elephant in the room with breathtaking candor.
I watched Obama’s race speech from my room at the Omni Hotel in Washington. I was stunned. When it was over, I wandered downstairs to hear Jesse Jackson and a few other old hands from the civil rights days address roughly the same subject.
The difference between Obama and Jackson was extraordinary. Jackson was being followed around by an annoying hack from Fox News who was trying to get him to stand up for Rev. Wright. Jackson, to his credit, refused to take the bait. But his pedestrian comments that morning were pure boilerplate. He looked like am aging gunfighter who had run out of bullets. The old bromides failed to resonate. A new word was needed and Jesse didn’t have it.
In fact, I believe Obama has opened the door for a new conversation about race. People like Cosby and Dyson are finding it easier to be civil and constructive. More importantly, the stage is set for white folks and black folks to have a long-deferred conversation. The Jim Crow regime was ended by judicial and legislative fiat, but we didn’t really talk things through.
Obama was effective because he talked to everyone and challenged everyone. Much of what Cosby had to say about black youth is hard to argue with, but he seemed to be suggesting that contemporary problems had no relation to past injustice. So far as Cosby was concerned, white people were off the hook.
Obama didn’t make that mistake. The time had come for a new conversation about race, and for that to happen, black people and white people had to face the music.
For the African-American community, that path means . . . binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.
By issuing a challenge to both sides of the ancient racial divide, Obama rejected the racial consensus that substitutes for serious debate in America. Everyone agrees that Mississippi Burning racism is bad and must be denounced in the harshest terms. But it is also assumed that, like polio, overt racism has been largely stamped out in America. You may find a few old timey racists in exotic towns like Tulia and Jena, but these folks are walking anachronisms. Standard issue Americans, it is widely believed, have moved beyond racism.
The consequences of the American racial consensus are endless. If you find that African Americans are being incarcerated in grossly disproportionate numbers it must be because black people have a genetic predilection for crime (the conservative view) or it maybe we need a more enlightened public policy (the liberal view).
Only radicals suggest that the American criminal justice system continues to be haunted by ghosts from the Jim Crow era. And those who speak of “systemic racism” often regard black criminals as innocent victims, a view that sparks shrieks of outrage in the conservative camp.
By suggesting that all the participants in this fruitless shouting match are partly right and partly wrong, Barack Obama pours a solid foundation for real dialogue. Poor black people must take responsibility for their own actions AND white people must understand that the myth of white supremacy casts an exceedingly long shadow. The inequities and iniquities of the past are passed down from one generation to the next–albeit in diluted form.
It is frequently noted that Obama can talk this way because he is the son of a white mother and a black father. But if the next president is the only one talking about race we aren’t going to have much of a conversation. Following his remarkable speech in Philadelphia, Obama snapped back into his message of unity and inclusion in which we’re all just Americans. As president of an inclusive American, Obama may not have much more to say on the subject of race.
That means it’s our turn to start talking; not just about one another (our favorite passtime), but to one another. If you don’t have time to read the entire transcript, I have copied the salient sentences of Obama’s “race speech” below.
Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now . . . The comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
2 thoughts on “Obama opens the door”
This is a subject that easily creates mixed feeling in a way in which there are alot of lower class people that have create problems for them selves and others. But they are right in blaming the whites for the start of their problems but that doesn’t mean that they should be the blame for everything that comes down the pike. Cosby and others are in the easiest position in the world to make statements blanketing the lower class pointing the blame on whites which is very insensitive. Cosby inc. are not in the same shoes as the lower class, that have daily struggles due to the position in which their environment placed them. Instead of publicly blasting the lower class youth and their parents, people of influence should use their power to help those that are down trodden change their environment which will make it easier to help change their attitudes. Some environmental changes can include providing educational programs, job training, counseling etc. I have never heard of an instance where publicly blasting people changed them.
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