Friday, July 09, 2004

The Almighty Cos

Barbara Ehrenreich is proving why she is more than an ample fill-in for Thomas Friedman while he is on sabbatical from his regular column at the New York Times. In one of her recent columns, she raises an argument regarding causality and the poverty dynamic that has not been given its due in recent decades. Ehrenreich describes the reality that poverty is self-perpetuating and that many of the symptoms that are seen as social ills that run rampant in the lower classes are inextricably linked to the state of poverty.

Ehrenreich's observations came in the context of criticizing the controversial comments made recently by African-American entertainer Bill Cosby. Cosby made statements that low-income blacks are not as involved in their children's education as they could be, and that parents are not setting examples as role models to help their children acquire necessary social and language skills (although his choice of words was far less diplomatic).

He made a point, for example, that some parents would rather buy $500 sneakers for their kids than "Hooked on Phonics."

He said, "Let me tell you something, your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other n------ as they're walking up and down the street."

Ehrenreich seemed to bristle at Cosby's commentary because she perceived it as yet another screed blaming the impoverished for their status, with pervasive racial overtones. She correctly points out that, "During the buildup to welfare 'reform' in 1996, the comfortable denizens of think spas like the Heritage Foundation routinely excoriated poor black women for being lazy, promiscuous, government-dependent baby machines, not to mention overweight...As for poor black youth, they were targeted in the 90's as a generation of 'superpredators,' gang-bangers and thugs."

But is it impossible to balance Cosby's message with Ehrenreich's? Trust me, I am not saying racism doesn't exist or that the plight of lower income minorities in this country is an easy one. Ehrenreich points to the "fact that a black baby has a 40 percent chance of being born into poverty" and she quotes sociologist Michael Males who said, "younger black America today is struggling admirably against massive disinvestments in schools, terrible unemployment, harsh policing and degrading prejudices." As I noted above, poverty is self-perpetuating and its clutches are exceedingly difficult to escape, and black children are born into this trap almost half the time. So we all agree that the problem is real, now what do we do about it?

In some cases de-mythification of racism and a re-directed onus on achievement and personal responsibility can be positive factors for changing this intransigent problem. Debra Dickerson in her book, "The End of Blackness" touches on many of these themes. To quote her:

"How has the notion of 'blackness' bamboozled African Americans into an unhealthy obsession with white America? What are the deleterious consequences of this? How has 'blackness' diminished the sovereignty of African Americans as rational and moral beings? How has white America exploited the concept to sublimate its rage toward and contempt for black America?"

Cosby addressed this issue thusly: "For me there is a time...when we have to turn the mirror around. Because for me it is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us. And it keeps a person frozen in their seat, it keeps you frozen in your hole you're sitting in."

In addition to noting that blaming white America for their problems can prevent African-Americans from taking responsibility for their lives, Dickerson criticizes the notions that speaking well, achieving in school and succeeding professionally are viewed as "white" whereas "keeping it real" is the hipper more authentic path. Of course "keeping it real" involves not attending college, not developing communication skills, and engaging in illegal and destructive behavior.

Add to the notion of "blackness" the culture of hip hop, and therein lie the foundations of some of the problems that Cosby was trying to address, albeit with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Hip-hop in the past decade has turned away from the social critique and social awareness of the early days, to glorifying crime, misogyny, drug use, violence, and promoting a disengagement with education and society in general. Since when was "pimping" a worthwhile aspiration? There are certainly notable exceptions, and the art form is not monolithic, but the prevailing popular ethos is one that feeds into and perpetuates many of the worst symptoms of poverty. Lets put it this way, could the KKK write a better script for negative stereotypical black behavior than 50 Cent and Snoop?

What is worse, these are extremely influential figures that are affecting young African-Americans who are not well served by the messages promoted. In reality, many of these young people have more opportunity and promise than they are seizing. This is especially the case amongst the lower middle class and working class youth who are not utterly demoralized by the conditions of abject poverty. But even for the poorest, "blackness" combined with hip hop's embrace of destructive behavior has provided more traction than advancement.

These attitudes also take for granted the many strides made in the arena of civil rights over the past 50 years. Cosby put it this way: "Dogs, water hoses that tear the bark off trees, Emmett Till," he said, naming the black youth who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955, allegedly for whistling at a white woman. "And you're going to tell me you're going to drop out of school? You're going to tell me you're going to steal from a store?"

Thus, I think it is possible to have a realistic discussion of racism and poverty, one that acknowledges the persistence of racism and how vicious and self-perpetuating the cycle of poverty is, while at the same time seeking to increase the level of accountability, responsibility and introspection in the African-American community, as well as recognizing that racism has been getting better and does not provide insurmountable obstacles.

Of course this is a delicate balance to maintain, and those engaging in this discourse must be vigilant against the temptation to blame the victims. And there is the reality that Dickerson's book and Cosby's comments will be seized on by the far right and used to argue that the fault lies with African-Americans and/or the impoverished and that urban reform and ameliorative policies aren't necessary. Such battles will have to be fought when those shots are fired.

As Cosby said when this point was made to him, "Let them talk."

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