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.")