Thursday, October 20, 2005


Stern, Cosby, and Race in America

One is a Jewish lawyer, one is a black entertainer, and they've both pissed off a number of black Americans. Bill Cosby is back in the news after touring the country and speaking in lower-income black neighborhoods about crime, education, and pride. Last year, at a NAACP celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Cosby went on a rant:
These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we have these knuckleheads running around.... I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is' ... and I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk.... Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth."
The reaction, predictably, was outrage. Earlier this week, NBA Commissioner David Stern ignited a similar furor when he instituted a dress code:

Players will no longer be able to wear: sleeveless shirts; shorts; t-shirts; chains, pendants, or medallions worn over the player's clothes; sunglasses while indoors; headphones (other than on the team bus or plane, or in the team locker room).

Both Stern and Cosby were charged with racism--though in Cosby's case it was often characterized as "elitism." I bring this up mainly because I think we have far too few discussions about race in America. Cosby is concerned with problems the demographics reveal: blacks trail in income, education, and opportunity. In attacking black slang, he apparently was trying to highlight these issues, though he fell into the trap of pitting black culture against the dominant culture (by which we mean white).

Stern is less concerned with race in America--he is trying to sell a product, and if the players begin to deviate too sharply from the mores of the dominant culture, then whites across the country will drift away and watch more football and car racing. Stern made the same mistake Cosby did--he targeted culture.

Imagine if NASCAR issued a decree similar to Stern's: business casual outside the racetrack. No cowboy boots or Stetsons, no big belt buckles, no jeans or handlebar mustaches. It would be not only stupid, but bizarre. But then, demographics are with NASCAR--more Americans wear cowboy hats than 'do rags.

The time when America is dominated by a single cultural expression--men with hats and jackets, women in skirts--are long gone. Now we have many cultures, and they align occassionally with race. In the case of racial tension between blacks and whites, we most often see the battle rage over cultural lines rather than racial ones.

Yet for people like Bill Cosby--who may be unskillful and impolitic, but obviously not a racist--the cultural wars mask a deadly serious problem. Blacks are still disadvantaged relative to whites. Not only do they (and we're talking the aggregate here) have fewer opportunities and fewer inroads to success, but they are still actively oppressed by various state institutions--the criminal justice system among the most obvious. The question is, how do we rectify the problem? We spend a lot of time assigning blame and fighting proxy wars over culture. But this seems mainly to be a way of avoiding a real discussion.

(As to Stern's action, I think Tim Duncan gets closest to the truth. It's not that it's racist per se, he said, but "I think it's basically retarded.")


Mick said...

Cosby is making a rich man's mistake: he's blaming the victims of poverty for being poor. He made it up from nothing because he was willing to play the white man's game. It worked, he's rich and famous, so why can't everybody else do the same thing?

He's also making making an elitist's mistake: he's blaming the victims of racism for not rising above the racism that holds them down. He apparently believes that racism is the result of cultural differences and if those damn street kids would just learn to talk like preppies, racism would vanish. The stereotype here is startling coming from a black man who really ought to know better, but of course, he's invested in his own decisions. One wonders how he explains the large number of perfectly well-spoken young black men and women who are passed over for jobs every day, often in favor of white kids who talk less well than the black kids who were hired.

Even his superficial point about responsibility echoes the excuses and comments of white racists from 50 years ago to today. The fact that they're being repeated by a rich black man doesn't make them any more right than when they come from whites. If Cosby isn't a racist, then neither is David Dukes.

No legitimate discussion about race will ever be possible as long as people, black or white, try to do it without acknowledging the profound disruption prejudice creates in society--ours or anybody's. Cosby's 'if only they'd talk, dress, act like the dominant culture, racism wouldn't exist' is not the answer, and dressing it up as 'black pride' doesn't help.

Jeff Alworth said...

Mick, I agree with you--to a point. But I find the equation between David Duke and Cosby disturbing. While Cosby is guilty of sloppy thinking, intention matters for a whole lot. David Duke was actively engaged in repressing black Americans. He was intentional about it. Bill Cosby's intention, by everything he's said and done in his life, is the opposite. I believe it's appropriate to criticize someone for the result of their speech and actions, but to ignore motivation is dangerous.

Part of the reason race is so charged is because we charge it with terms like "racist." As far as I can tell, the human condition is described in part by a powerful tribal instinct. We tend to band with like people (like-minded, like-colored, people who speak our langauge or go to the same church). Overcoming this instinct requires delicacy and generosity--and if we lapse into labels, I fear we've defeated ourselves.

Mick said...

I believe it's appropriate to criticize someone for the result of their speech and actions, but to ignore motivation is dangerous.

Fair enough, but my point had only to do with his speech. I find it very disturbing that a man like Cosby is saying the same things, making the same points, and riding the same horse as a man like Dukes. In that sense, it doesn't really matter if Cosby's coming from a different motivation; if he believes the same pile of shit, he's just as wrong.

What's the real difference between them? Dukes thinks blacks are inferior because their skin is a different color. Cosby thinks too many blacks are inferior because they don't make the right choices--the choices he made. In the first case, Dukes is identifying his tribe by skin color, in the second Cosby is identifying his tribe by behavour and attitude. But in both cases, each man is separating out people different from himself and condemning them. Both their belief systems lead to prejudice and demand that only those similar to themselves deserve respect.

Overcoming this instinct requires delicacy and generosity

I wish that were true but I don't think it is in all cases. In fact, I don't think it is in most cases. What I think it requires is anger--the kind of anger that Martin had: a refusal to accept second-class status because you don't look or act or sound the way the dominant class wants you to, the kind of anger that will stand up and fight to be seen and respected as an individual human being regardless of how one looks or sounds or dresses.

The tribal instinct is so deep-rooted it's going to take dynamite to blast it out, and I think the dynamite we're talking about is to insist on building a society that is intolerant of intolerance. I come from the 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!' school. As long as a sizable part of society is prepared to accept tribalism, live by it, find excuses for it, or look the other way when it's being advocated, nothing is going to change.

Martin touched a raw nerve in the black community, an open wound. He touched the terrible anger seething just below the surface and gave it direction, sort of like lancing a boil. That's what we need--to take that tribalist anger and suspicion of everyone who's different and channel it in a healthy way that moves toward a union of the human race instead of increasing separatism, because separatism--of any kind--leads to hatred and chaos and 'generosity and delicacy' can't stop that march to the cliffs.

Racism is just a form of tribalism, as you so correctly say, but then so is any kind of separatism: classism, elitism, ethnicism, they're all ways of separating Us from the feared and dreaded Them. Martin said over over again that there is no Them, there are only various versions of Us. He was talking about racism but the same goes for all the types of tribalism.

Cosby is working to his brand of tribalism as Dukes works to his; if tribalism is the enemy, then they are both the enemies of tolerance and especially respect. From that perspective, the degree of difference their motivation entitles them to is severly diminished.

As for labels, I agree that they're a two-edged sword, but by the same token some labels need to be loaded. We defeat ourselves not by using labels but by misapplying them. I want people to feel bad about being labeled a murderer because they killed someone, and I want people to feel bad about being labeled a racist because they think the color of a person's skin has anything to do with who they are. But if you start labeling soldiers or policemen murderers when they kill someone who tried to kill them, you're violating the meaning of the label and distorting both truth and the language you're using to define and explicate that truth.

The answer is not to get rid of labels. To do that, you'd have to get rid of language. What are words, after all, if not labels describing some form of reality, a sort of shorthand? Labels are a tool of communication, and the answer is to make sure their meanings are as clear and unambiguous as possible.

What is going on with Cosby and Bill Bennett is that we're attempting to label denigrating language as 'racism' simply because it's applied to members of a particular race--that was my point in equating Cosby and Dukes. But in fact that's a lousy way to do it. It leads to confusion and the wrong kind of misapplied anger. We can--and must--do better than that.

I don't think Cosby is a racist. I don't think he's elitist either. I think he's something we don't have a word/label for: somebody who believes everybody would be happier if they had his character and beliefs, if they acted the way he acts and talked the way he talks, and he's separating people based on their willingness--or lack of it--to do that. The black community is angry because it understands exactly what he's doing; they've heard it all before.

From racists. The mild, usually white, racists who seem genuinely confused about why 'colored folks' don't act more like them. That's a bitter pill coming from one of your own. I think they've got a point.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to go on this long. Um, I'll stop now.

Jeff Alworth said...

All right, then.