Friday, May 2, 2008

Black and White

Bill Cosby is pursuing a career as a motivational speaker. What he has to say disturbs me for several reasons and in several ways. I'll try to run down them over the next few days, but here's my first impressions.

First off, he idealizes the history of African Americans, and Africans before them. His recent book, Come On People, has this to say about history:

“no group of people has had the impact on the culture of the whole world that African Americans have had, and much of that impact has been for the good”

Quite a bit of pride there, wot? Anyway, his point is that African Americans have backslid from that position of respect and power, that their culture is degrading, and it's largely the fault of the hip-hop kids with their pants and their cars.

Indeed, it's not just that blacks have backslid since the height of the African empires; it's that they have backslid since the 1950s:

“For all the woes of segregation, there were some good things to come out of it,” Cosby and Poussaint write. “One was that it forced us to take care of ourselves. When restaurants, laundries, hotels, theaters, groceries, and clothing stores were segregated, black people opened and ran their own. Black life insurance companies and banks thrived, as well as black funeral homes … Such successes provided jobs and strength to black economic well-being. They also gave black people that gratifying sense of an interdependent community.”

What they seem to be saying, then, is that "race mixing" is causing all sorts of problems, from unwed mothers to crack dens. The blacks in America are worse off now than they were when they had to use the back door to American life because mixing with us white folk has degraded their moral character.

It doesn't help that Cosby is touring the country, and everywhere that he goes, he speaks to men. Great rooms full of men, standing room only in most cases. He tells them that they have to step up and work to fix the problems with their culture and communities. So where are the women? It's up to Cliff and Theo Huxtable to fix the problems (if you'll allow me a metaphor). Their message has no space for Clair or Vanessa or Rudy. Cosby says it's such a shame that women get pregnant out of wedlock and aren't instantly shuffled off to the country, where decent folk don't have to look at them (but that's a rant for another day), and he isn't calling on the women to do anything about it.

I have read the article in The Atlantic, and I have digested what parts of Cosby's message are presented there, and I have this little list:

Bill Cosby speaks to large groups of men, about how they need to be men and fix their culture.
He speaks of a golden age and a fall from, well, grace really, caused by integration with the majority population; of the supremacy of the black group and the degeneracy brought about by mingling with others.
He has little to no words for women, and how they can help.
He seems to spurn any overtures of assistance and help from outside the black group.

Does any of this seem familiar? To me, it has chilling overtones that are shared by one other group: White supremacists.

Now, before you jump on the comments and light up your flamethrowers, I will say this: I do not see Bill Cosby advocating eliminationism, which is one of the troubling things about white supremacy groups. I do see him preaching separatism, the scorning of the out group, and the need for purity of the in group. These ideas trouble me when they are spoken at Hitler's birthday party, and they bother me when they are spoken in black churches in Philadelphia.

This is a large and wiggly can of worms I'm opening here, I understand that, but I'm determined that it needs to be opened. You say we need a national dialogue on race? I think this is part of that dialogue: Why do groups in America wish to crawl out of the melting pot? In what ways does it help, and in what ways does it hurt, to define the world as In and Out, Us and Them? I don't have these answers, but perhaps we can start to grasp some vague notion of something approaching an answery thing.

I'm not editing comments, so if you've got something to say, click on Comments and let me have that ring of fire.

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