The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Is Bill Cosby Right?

Was reading Michael Eric Dyson’s book “Is Bill Cosby Right?” and felt disappointed. The book criticizes Cosby’s current crusade to get poor inner-city parents to take greater responsibility for the problems of their children. While I agree that thos trapped in poverty are deserving of great compassion, and that Cosby tends to paint with too broad a brush at times, I found myself troubled by the book.

First, I never got the feeling, not for an instant, that Cosby was saying all poor black people are poor due to their personal failings. He always seemed to be saying that IF you behave in such an such manner, this is irresponsible and reprehensible. I grasp that it is possible to interpret his words differently. But Dyson’s book, which could have presented a lucid refutation or expansion or addendum or alternative thesis, instead seems to present largely a thinly veiled character assassination, presenting allegations as if they were true, trumpeting Cosby’s admitted affair as evidence that he hasn’t the “moral authority” to criticize, and devoting page after page to the charge that he fathered a child out of wedlock, pretty much discounting the fact that he offered to take a blood test and his putative daughter refused.

Fine, I guess…all’s fair in political rhetoric. But I went looking for Dyson’s explanation of one of the most disturbing statistics, that being the percentage of out-of-wedlock births in the inner city. I believe the statistic is 63% of black infants, as opposed to about 18% of white and 35% of Hispanic. This is horrific, and related so directly to poverty and crime that anyone who hasn’t looked this up is cheating themselves of a genuine chill. There would be many ways of dealing with this stat, and Dyson is smart enough to interpret that data in interesting and educational fashions. But instead…he ignores it. Doesn’t deal with it. Instead, he finds one narrow statistic, that unwed pregnancies over the last thirty years have decreased among black girls aged 15-17. What? Is that the best you can do, after spending five pages tearing apart the Messenger’s reputation because he MIGHT have been a girl’s father? After he offered to put her through school, offered support and interacted with her as a father figure? This makes me think that Dyson is deliberately dancing around something that he is too (and here it comes) politically correct to be honest about. That is, of course, that while on the one hand there is massive racism, poverty, and brainwashing to deal with, on the other hand there are serious, powerful actions that individuals can take to improve the lives of their children. Like, for instance, not having children until you are married. Brrrr.

This subject is simply too important to allow misguided empathy to color discussions. In my opinion, Cosby is saying aloud something that desperately needs to be said, and his contentions need to be debated as if he has earned a place at the table. His uncounted millions of dollars of scholarships alone have earned him that much respect.

Ad hominem attacks don’t illuminate truth or save lives. I understand Cosby’s frustration. My attitude is simple: you can’t take the position that four hundred years of oppression have caused damage without describing the limp. And while it is “unfair” to ask black parents to shoulder more responsibility than white parents, screw it. IT’S YOUR KIDS. And life isn’t fair. You do what you have to do, not what’s fair, or convenient. Playing field isn’t level? No, it isn’t. And in terms of the results you get in life, nobody cares if it's fair. If you can't afford a safety net, don't walk a tightrope. Don't tell me about the painful fact that another community can afford more self-destructive behaviors. That sucks. But now your baby's crying in the other room--what are you going to do, talk politics? While others are working the political tip trying to change things, people like me...and Cosby, emphasize individual responsibility. If there is anything, anything at all I can do to improve my children’s chances in this world, I will do it at the cost of my own life. And anyone who brings children into this world without that attitude is, in my humble opinion, being a selfish child. And if you want to have sex and be a child, fine. But use a rubber, dammit. And don’t complain when people who DO care risk public flagellation to speak their despair and disillusionment. And people like Dyson? He has a great deal to offer. If he believes that Cosby had an obligation to present a more balanced picture, Dyson may be right…but it behooves him to lead by example.

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