By Leonard Pitts Jr
Maybe somebody spiked his Jell-O.
I bet the audience seriously considered the idea when Bill Cosby performed recently in Washington at a commemoration of Brown v. Board of Education.
According to the Washington Post, Cosby’s routine ridiculed “lower economic people” in the black community for their values, their mannerisms, their dysfunctions. He described them as “knuckleheads,” complained that they’ll buy $500 sneakers — “and won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.’ … They can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t?’ ‘Where you is?’”
There was more, but you get the gist.
The Post reports that Cosby’s rant elicited “astonishment, laughter and applause.” A “stone-faced” Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert went on stage afterward and pointedly reminded the crowd that many of the black community’s problems are not self-inflicted.
Which is true. It’s also beside the point.
Have you ever wondered why it’s almost impossible for blacks and whites to discuss race honestly? This episode is an answer in microcosm.
Blacks seldom publicly concede that some of the dysfunction suffered by the black underclass is self-inflicted for fear of giving aid and comfort to bigotry. So when analyzing racial progress or the lack thereof, black folk tend to emphasize racism.
Whites, on the other hand, are often loathe to concede that racism remains the great ball and chain of black life for fear the admission will besmirch their benign self-image or be used to make them feel guilty. So they tend to emphasize dysfunction instead.
Blacks and whites have a way of talking past each other.
The fact is, Cosby said nothing about black underachievement that black people have not said before. His mistake, if you want to call it that, was in speaking publicly. Because publicly, we — black and white — prefer to stick to the script that makes it easiest on us, demands the least from us.
So let me say something here for the record.
Much as some white folk pretend otherwise, racism did not vanish one fine day long ago. It lives, here, now, still. And it is, by definition, not something black people can cure through self-improvement. Racism doesn’t care how educated, wealthy or decent you are. It will still call you ignorant, deny you a loan and throw you in jail. It will still give white people unearned advantages on the basis of their whiteness.
And yet, this also is true: For all the woe it brings, racism is not the proximate source of all the ills that beset the black underclass. We do not need white people’s approval or even their involvement to correct much of what ails us — to require that our children spend less time with BET and more with BOOK, to reconnect our fathers with their families, to abandon the misbegotten mindset that equates ignorance and thuggery with authentic blackness.
Poverty and miseducation are a Petri dish for dysfunction no matter what color you are. If you don’t believe that, go hang around a neighborhood full of poor and miseducated white people sometime.
So we ought to be able to raise these issues without it being seen as a sop to bigotry. In pitting racism against self-inflicted dysfunction, we embrace a false dichotomy. These are not contradictory truths, but the indispensable halves of a complex whole.
Yes, Cosby’s comments were stereotypical, maybe downright mean. But for all that, his routine also reflected a willingness, rare in black people and white ones, to confront the obvious and raise issues that require more of us than the ability to feel put upon.
Maybe somebody did spike his Jell-O. Maybe they should spike ours, too.