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Thursday, May 5th, 2005


Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?

by Michael Eric Dyson

Insult Comic

A review by Reihan Salam

Elitism has many dimensions. There is the contempt of the middle classes for the very poor. This has an old pedigree. This contempt is often strongest among working families only slightly removed from poverty. Thanks to intimate familiarity with the pathologies that scar the lives of the poorest among us, these families react sharply against the faintest whiff of laziness or violent behavior. And so the anxiety-ridden members of this lower middle class are quick to flee the inner cities that threaten to swallow up their children. Having grown up sheltered in one of the neighborhoods largely left behind, I know these attitudes well. Just to declare my own allegiances at the outset, I sympathize. But I don't think "contempt" is the right word. "Fear" is more like it.

When you've been a victim of crime, or more pressingly when you've seen a relative incarcerated or tormented by drug addiction or institutionalized for yet another reason, you know that you're living on a knife's edge and that your relative security can easily dissipate as a result of one serious mistake. You could splurge at the wrong time, or your child could end up in the wrong crowd. Fear is pervasive and palpable. It makes life tense and uneasy, and while it can occasionally spill over into ugly resentments of the vandals and hooligans you're careful to never look in the eye, mainly it just makes you tenaciously protective of the people and communities you love. This is the so-called elitism that, strikingly, Michael Eric Dyson chooses to savage in his fierce polemic, Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?).

As Dyson goes on to explain, "class in black America has never been viewed in strictly literal economic terms" for it "embraces style and behavior as well." That this undercuts his argument -- that a very poor person can embrace the principles of self-help and the bourgeois habits and expectations championed by Bill Cosby, his bête noire -- is conveniently brushed aside. While striving is all too often not enough, it does introduce complex cleavages into the so-called "Ghettocracy." Considering that Dyson promises a more thoughtful and nuanced portrait of class conflict in black America, one can't help but be disappointed.

Which leads me back to elitism. There is another more odious species of elitism, one that Dyson's tract embodies from start to finish. That is the elitism that celebrates not the petty-bourgeois but rather the enlightened clerisy. It is the elitism that has only scorn and derision for the contemptuous working poor folk we've discussed, but that very nearly celebrates the dysfunctional poor as rebels against a deeply corrupt social order.

Marxists of the old school despised the lumpenproletariat, the criminal dregs that preyed on the working class. The new elitists romanticize this small and dangerous minority that declares war on communities already in parlous shape. It's a trope that reached its full flower decades ago in the wild-eyed fringe of the New Left, the moral imbeciles who pledged eternal solidarity with vicious street gangs. Though thoroughly discredited, this worldview still survives.

Dyson, in a seamless progression, has gone from writing a searching and at times worshipful study of Tupac Shakur (Holler If You Hear Me, a work that established his reputation with many in my generation) to damning Bill Cosby. Amazingly, the flawed (and violent and misogynistic and undeniably brilliant) Shakur gets far more respectful treatment than the hopelessly square Cosby. Dyson has no right to claim his thesis as original or particularly insightful. It is Dyson's dehumanizing notion that personal responsibility pales before "structural features" in destroying the lives of the poor and the black that has defined consensus in elite academia. Dyson insists that Cosby violated an implicit code by airing dirty laundry in such a way that non-black audiences might listen in. With this rhetorical move, he can safely deny that Cosby has made any kind of intellectual contribution. All Cosby is doing is providing aid and comfort to privileged blacks and white social critics blasted for racism. Dyson thus styles himself the daring challenger, not yet another in a long line of noted intellectuals providing aid and comfort to those who would deny black agency.

Dyson betrays his elitism most blatantly in his obvious disdain for Cosby. Though he scrupulously avoids characterizing Cosby as a traitor to his race, Dyson all but characterizes Cosby as, well, a traitor to his race. Dyson traces Cosby's fuddy-duddy criticisms of African American Vernacular English to ignorance and discomfort. Rather than engage Cosby's arguments on these matters, Dyson psychoanalyzes Cosby. It is a classic elitist move, executed elegantly and artfully. Why should Dyson, a tenured academic, engage the arguments of the obviously undereducated Cosby (armed with a doctoral degree, yes, but no endowed chair)? Cosby doesn't even know that Hooked on Phonics has been criticized as ineffective! The fool! As for the notion that smart black youth are criticized as "acting white," Dyson, a scholar with a research budget, has managed to locate like-minded ethnographers who disagree! (If only Dyson subjected his own claims to the same scrutiny.)

The undereducated masses -- and that's what they evidently are, saintly, suffering masses and not people with (constrained, challenging, difficult) choices -- on the other hand, well, that's another story. Remarkably, Dyson treats a criminal who mugged him at gunpoint more charitably than Cosby. When the criminal claims that he's only robbing people to support his wife and three children, Dyson believes every word. Cosby doesn't merit the same kindness. No. With Cosby, there are ulterior motives, and possibly a dash of self-hatred. Again and again, Dyson borders on self-parody, resembling no one so much as a milquetoast dad struggling to prove he's down with the kids.

Because Cosby trafficked in color-blind messages, seeing blackness as merely one aspect of his public identity, Dyson ruthlessly interrogates his decision to stand as a culture warrior so late in the day. Despite having refused to speak as a black leader in the past, Cosby is now drawing on his public capital to attack the vulnerable black poor. So Dyson's story goes. That Cosby's son was killed, that progress for the black poor has been stymied by Dyson's favored politics of resentment, that the universalist goals of the early civil-rights movement have been undermined by white backlash politics -- none of these historical developments matter. Though the world has changed, Cosby is not allowed to change with it. Why? Because Dyson lauds the old Cosby who in an "intelligent and unsparing dissection of white supremacy" declared in a 1969 Playboy interview that "[t]he main white value" is "greed." How edifying, and how bold. Moving beyond this logic is, for Dyson, a step backwards.

One could go on with an "unsparing dissection" of this self-congratulatory dispatch from the Ivory Tower. Instead, I'll close with an observation. Dyson's most admirable quality is his sympathy with the plight of incarcerated black men, most of whom find themselves with little in the way of job opportunities after being released from prison. This inevitably leads to involvement in the underground economy, which in turn leads to more jail time or possibly death. Thanks to draconian drug laws and a system of family law that makes life for young black fathers exceedingly difficult, the U.S. warehouses an alarmingly high proportion of its population in prisons. Helping ex-convicts build better lives ought to be our top policy priority. But as Bill Cosby understands, policy isn't the only thing. "Where were you when he was two?" Cosby asks. "Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don't know he had a pistol?" What Cosby knows is that while more decent and humane policies can make a difference, parenting matters and communities matter. Real lives are at stake, and a sense of moral urgency about even the most personal decisions is the only appropriate response. All the populist posturing in the world won't change that.

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