Why Not a Dazzling Offense? by Casey Lartigue

Known for his outspoken tough love, Bill Cosby once publicly admonished a young black student from the University of the District of Columbia. The young man hoped for a promotion at his Drug Enforcement Administration job after he got his degree, but he was worried. He told Cosby, “It just gets scary sometimes. 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,” Cosby shot back. “This is a time for you to grasp what you can. Go up, man… Don’t just stay where you are.”

This didn’t happen at last year’s 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, where Cosby caused a frenzy by criticizing the parenting skills of low-income blacks. This exchange happened back in 1983 when he was speaking at a two-day conference in Washington called “A National Assessment Conference on Education and the Future of Black Americans: 1983 and Beyond.” Cosby, however, gave the conference its unofficial theme: black youngsters needed to start taking advantage of available opportunities.

If such a conference were held in 2005, it would likely be denounced as a mean-spirited affair where the black elite simply heaped blame on poor black kids. The person most likely to denounce it would be Michael Eric Dyson, the fast-talking author and hip-hop professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Dyson was among the first – and loudest – to condemn Cosby’s tough-love comments, and he’s put his thoughts together in the book Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?

For all of the bluster and anger about Cosby’s comments and tone, Dyson’s written a book that’s utterly useless to the very people he claims to defend. The book’s dust jacket promises a “dazzling defense” of black life. After reading the book, one can’t help but wonder: Why not also offer a “dazzling offense”?

Is Bill Cosby Right? is the equivalent of a 288-page love note to a low-income black family in the process of getting evicted from their home. It furthermore offers no practical advice. Dyson has a few good ideas, but he boxes himself in with too many categories and labels such as “Afristocracy” (professional and upper bourgeois blacks) and “ghettocracy” (those at the bottom).

On page after page, Dyson condemns the black elite for being ashamed of the black masses.

Although he could have ended his book with realistic and common sense advice, for whatever reason, Dyson doesn’t. His own life has reportedly been tumultuous, going from a middle-class childhood and boarding school education to becoming a teenage father and welfare recipient in his 20s to his current job as a tenured university professor. He would certainly seem qualified to advise people on how to overcome barriers to success, but all he does is scoff at Cosby without offering anything beyond a defense.

In contrast to Cosby’s criticism of black criminality, Dyson seeks to “understand” the criminal. For instance, when Dyson was robbed at gunpoint in Detroit back in 1977, he said he and his would-be robber allegedly got into a conversation about why the young man was trying to rob him. The dark forces of institutional racism explain why they were there, as robber and victim. It is then understandable that Dyson literally swoons when discussing Cosby’s 1976 dissertation bashing institutional racism.

Another problem with Is Bill Cosby Right? is Dyson’s tendency to romanticize the ghetto. Vices are denied or turned into virtues. That may be a clever debating point on his university campus, but what is a parent struggling with a 14-year-old reading at the third grade level supposed to do with this sophistry?

Over his four-decade career, Bill Cosby has made it known that he believes racial barriers exist. But, after giving his own money and time for years in an effort to help blacks, Cosby may be telling people to stand up because he is tired of stepping over them.

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Casey Lartigue is a member of the black leadership network Project 21 and the host of the blog “What Would You Say If You Weren’t Afraid?” Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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