Politics Mondays: Why Not a Dazzling Offense? by Casey Lartigue
Bill Cosby doled out some of the very tough love that he is known for to a college student in Washington D.C. According to the Washington Post, the youngster was working for the Drug Enforcement Administration while studying for a bachelor’s degree at the University of the District of Columbia.
The young man told Cosby: “It just gets scary sometimes.” If he gets his degree, he hopes to get a promotion. “But if I’m put on a pedestal...I’m afraid I’ll fail. It’s scary.”
“What is so scary is that you aren’t trying,” shot back Cosby. “This is a time for you to grasp what you can. Go up, man...Don’t just stay where you are.”
The scene above was not at last year’s 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education dinner. Rather, Cosby was speaking to the UDC student at a two-day conference on black education held at the University of the District of Columbia in 1983.
The official theme of the 1983 conference: A National Assessment Conference on Education and the Future of Black Americans: 1983 and Beyond. The unofficial theme that emerged: black youngsters had to start taking advantage of available opportunities. Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, whose organization co-sponsored the event with UDC, said that blacks had to move from “the struggle for opportunity” to “a struggle for effort to seize the opportunity.” Cosby suggested that blacks emulate Asian students who studied hard. The president of UDC said that he was for “open admissions,” but not “open graduation.” Students would have to buckle down and study harder.
Today, such a conference might be denounced as a mean-spirited affair held by the black elite denouncing poor black kids. And the person most likely to denounce it would be Michael Eric Dyson, the fast-talking, hip-hop professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of about 10 books. Dyson, among the first—and loudest—to condemn Cosby’s comments, has put his thoughts together in Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?
Dyson does all but tell us that he doesn’t like what Cosby had for breakfast on May 17, 2004. For all of the bluster and anger about Cosby’s comments and tone, Dyson has written a book that is utterly useless for the very people he claims to be defending. The dust-jacket of the book promises a “dazzling defense” of black life. But after reading the book, I wonder: Why not a dazzling “offense?”
Dyson has written the equivalent of a long love note, 288 pages plus footnotes, to a low-income black family in the process of getting evicted from their home. The book offers no practical advice. It can’t do so.
That’s not because Dyson has no ideas about how someone can overcome barriers to become successful. He reportedly went from living in a middle class family and attending boarding school as a youngster, to being a single father as a teen, to being on welfare in his early twenties, to becoming a tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dyson certainly has some ideas, but can’t offer anything practical that might help a “lower-income person” because Dyson boxes himself in with the many categories and labels that he has concocted. The main ones: Afristocracy and Ghettocracy. The Afristocrat busybodies are the black professionals and upper bourgeois black people lecturing the Ghettocracy stuck at the bottom.
After so many pages denouncing the black elite for being ashamed about the black masses, it would have been out of place--even Cosby-like--for Dyson to end his love note with something like: let me show you the roadmap that I followed to get out of my own bad situation. You don’t have to stay where you are.
Thus, Dyson can only scoff at Cosby without offering anything beyond a defense. For example, Cosby tells an audience in Detroit, “The poverty pimps and the victim pimps keep telling the victims to stay where they are. You’re crippled, you can’t walk, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. And I’m saying, you’d better get up.”
If Dyson believes that statement about getting up is so lousy, then what is it that Dyson would suggest instead? That people not get up? Have a discussion about racism? Dyson’s response is to complain about folks on the Fox News Network (both O’Reilly and Hannity & Colmes) showing the clip.
His thin skin is why I’d like to offer a new term, dedicated to him: tribal worrier. While the tribal warriors in a tribe go out to fight or produce, there are others--the worriers--who wring their hands about various slights to protect the group’s image. Even an off-the-cuff remark by a movie star or politician from another country can send them into hysterics.
The tribal worrier in Dyson romanticizes the ghetto. Vices are denied or turned into virtues. That may be a clever debating point on the UPenn campus, but what is a parent struggling with a 14 year old reading at the third grade level supposed to do with his sophistry?
Dyson’s love note to the “lower-income people” makes it seem unfair to pull the poor into the black middle class elite. Better not to listen to Cosby because he is just a (moral) cop who doesn’t understand why you robbed that liquor store. In contrast, Dyson understands. When he got robbed at gunpoint, in Detroit back in 1977, Dyson and his would-be thief allegedly got into a conversation about why the young man was trying to rob him. If Dyson were telling the story on TV, a rap video might break out about black-on-black crime, with the message being that we can’t expect blacks to stop preying upon one another until institutional racism is wiped out.
Over his 4 decade career, Cosby has made it clear that he believes that there are barriers (Dyson literally swoons when discussing Cosby’s 1976 dissertation bashing institutional racism). But Cosby has also made it clear that we can’t just “stay where we are.” After those four decades of giving his own money and time to the effort, Cosby may be telling people to stand up because he is tired of stepping over them.
Casey Lartigue is host of the blog What Would You Say If You Weren't Afraid. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, August 22, 2005