I was watching Oprah not too long ago (I know. I'm sorry...). On the show were Drs. Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint as they discussed their new book Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. This book is the latest in the long list of public appearances and open discourse they've had regarding the state of today's black community. Their forums -- controversial as they be -- are calling on the Black community to be more aggressive in their advocacy for change and community improvement. Not surprisingly, their commentary has been met with opposition; mostly from public intellectuals like Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, who insist that they place too much emphasis on personal responsibility and not enough on the systemic and structural racism that exists. Further, opponents contend that "airing dirty laundry" allows many in White America (especially conservatives) to justify their own bigotry by using observations from other blacks like Cosby and Poussaint as a support system.
Truthfully, I see both sides of the argument.
On the one hand, I completely understand how some of Cosby and Poussaint's biggest critics can get incensed by their observations. Looking at their commentary from a certain vantage point, I can see how it can be perceived as being generationally out of touch, classist, and unbalanced.
To address the first point regarding the generational breakdown; for some time now, Dr. Cosby has been waging war on young people; particularly as it relates to how they embrace a certain urban culture that often includes activities, images, and representation that have negative implications. But what Drs. Cosby and Poussaint fail to note is how complex many elements of urban culture truly are. Now I'm not exactly a hip-hop subscriber myself. But even I can tell that many circles of hip hop go beyond simply celebrating thuggery, drugs, misogyny, violence, and the vacuous pursuit of material. There are quite a few mechanisms in place through the urban community that speak directly to the importance of education, community awareness, the harsh conditions of the streets, and the presence of systemic racism in law enforcement, the courts, and society at large. But messages like these are often ignored simply because the entire platform of hip hop is disparaged by the likes of Cosby and Poussaint. Simply put, some of their messages about black folks living outside of our means, killing each other, and promoting ignorance can sometimes be found in the very rap lyrics that they are so vehemently against.
Moving on to the next point, many critics tend to view the antics and commentary of people like Drs. Cosby and Poussaint as being laced with a great deal of classism. Though I don't think that is at all their intention, one would be hard pressed to disagree. One of the problems with how they (and other "well off" black folks) delivery their message is that their commentary typically suggests a level of antipathy toward poor and lower class blacks. Oftentimes, that antipathy is unfairly assigned. For instance, I read an amazing book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America; where she experimented by taking on a series of unskilled jobs while trying to earn a living. Yet she was unable to make ends meet. Such is the case with many poor blacks. They have solid work ethic and an interest to take care of their families; but because of certain precipitating events (racism, the ills of job outsourcing, corporate greed, low wages), they are often left out of the "American Dream".
Speaking to the last point, I understand why Blacks are sensitive to criticism about their lifestyles; albeit constructive. When analyses and cultural criticisms appear to be unbalanced and conveniently discount social, economic, and political deficiencies that create the problem, the 'victim' tends to get more offended when you place the blame squarely on them. The unfortunate consequence of this type of critical analysis -- though somewhat on point -- is that it can get lost if it isn't balanced by an understanding and an appreciation of the systemic problems that contribute just as much to this plight.
Still, I think that critics of Drs. Cosby and Poussaint should stop and really listen to the message they are trying to convey; regardless to how poor and incomplete the delivery might be. They talk about how gangs, drug/alcohol addiction, violence, and ignorance should be viewed in the same light as the other nefarious forces that exist in this society. Jim Crowism no longer "keeps us down". Now it's B.E.T. The Klan no longer terrorizes our neighborhood (at least not to the same extent as it once did). Now it's young black teenagers who are committing the assaults. It's no longer the George Wallaces of the world who work assiduously to keep blacks out of college. We're the ones voluntarily dropping out of high school. Simply put, in many cases, we're the ones self-imposing things that threaten our advancement and indeed our very survival.
Rather than painting black folks as sad and pathetic victims of circumstance, people like Cosby and Poussaint seek to empower us to control our own lives. They challenge parents to play a more active role in determining what images their children are exposed to; particularly when that imagery is the product of what we throw out there ourselves. True, most of the enterprise out there has a great deal of corporate sponsorship/ownership; but we are the ones being portrayed. Cosby and Poussaint are trying to urge us to be more actively engaged in promoting education in the community. They are calling for us to manage our households. They are calling for us to be more fiscally responsible. Frankly, there is nothing classist about that. They're using their "bully pulpit" in a responsible and necessary manner.
Again, I don't deny that there are major social obstacles in place that can hinder progress. But now is the time for the black community to have a renewed mind when facing those challenges. Let's take Oprah for example. Sure, she can be pretty shallow; especially with some of her ridiculous talk-show and magazine coverage and how she flaunts her money. Sure, she panders to middle-aged white woman far more than a person ever should (interestingly, the same thing can be said of most rappers; who largest consumer markets are white teenagers). But she is also a black woman who, by her success, wealth accumulation, and philanthropy; is living the life. This coming about in spite of racism. Though she is a rare case of insane success, the possibility of emerging from dysfunctional and oppressive environments is not at all inconceivable. True, not everybody can earn the status as an uber-billionaire in the same fashion that Oprah did. Only so many black people can cater to the interests of White America before the novelty wears off (are you listening Wayne Brady?). Nevertheless, the possibilities for other forms of success are as attainable now as they have ever been. That being the case, I see nothing wrong with one of us who "made it" occasionally lighting a fire under everybody else's ass.
What's often deplorable is that any time a Black person makes even a slightly critical assessment of other blacks, they are labeled as an Uncle Tom, classists, or as being apologetic for/dismissive toward racism. But if you believe that, you must also believe that their attempts to improve the conditions of Black America are somehow wrong as well. That, to me, is a ridiculous claim. This country is full of great people who have emerged despite the mounting structural disorders they faced. So rather than solely channeling out frustrations at Cosby, why not use our resources to confront both the systemic problems AND the ones that we create?
Holla at me!