Comedian Bill Cosby is the walking and now writing proof of the ancient adage that good intentions can go terribly awry. That's never been more painfully true than in Cosby's latest tome, Come On People. Cosby and his publisher boast that the book is a big, brash, and provocative challenge to black folk to get their act together. That's got him ga ga raves, and an unprecedented one hour spin job on Meet the Press. In the book, Cosby harangues and lectures, cobbles together a mesh of his trademark anecdotes, homilies, and personal tales of woe and success, juggles and massages facts to bolster his self-designated black morals crusade. Stripped away it's the same stock claim that blacks can't read, write or speak coherent English, and are social and educational cripples and failures.
Since Cosby's much touted tirade at the NAACP confab a few years back, and on countless talk shows, and at community gatherings, he has succeeded marvelously in getting the tongues of blacks wagging furiously and their fingers jabbing relentlessly at each other's alleged mountainous defects. They stumble over themselves to hail Cosby as the ultimate truth-giver.
He isn't. While Cosby is entitled to publicly air black America's alleged dirty laundry, there's more myth than dirt in that laundry. Some knuckleheads in black neighborhoods do kill, mug, peddle dope, are jobless untouchables, and educational wastrels. They, and only they, should be the target of wrath. But Cosby makes a Grand Canyon size leap from them to paint a half-truth, skewed, picture of the plight of poor blacks and the reasons and prescriptions for their plight. The cornerstone of Cosby myth-making is that they are crime prone, educational losers, and teen baby making machines.
Here are two choice Cosby whoppers from the opening pages of the book:
"There are whole blocks with scarcely a married couple, whole blocks without responsible black males"
This is a big, sweeping unsupported by any survey, stats, or factual data to back it up. And:
"The problems start early for black boys, and we can all see it. Call it ADHD or learning differences. Young black males can act up a Level 5 storm in class."
Here's another big unsubstantiated statement and there's those broad brush indicting words "all" see it" (who is all?); "young black males" (all young black males?); and they act up a level 5 storm (all black males are disruptive in class?)
The heart wrenching and much played up news shots and specials of black-on-black blood-letting in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and a handful of other big cities and the admission that blacks do have a much higher kill rate than young whites tell a tale of out-of-control, lawless blacks. The truth: homicides and physical assaults have plunged among black teens to the lowest levels in the past two decades. The rate of drug use among young blacks is no higher than among young whites. Blacks are more likely to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned than young whites who if arrested at all are more likely to get drug rehab, counseling, and treatment referrals, probation or community service. This horribly distorts the racial crime picture.
Then there is the black teen girls as baby making machine myth. The truth: the teen pregnancy rate among black girls has sharply dropped during the past decade. And they continue to fall.
The biggest myth that young blacks empty out the public schools, fill up the jails and cemeteries, and ridicule learning as acting white has risen to urban legend rank. The truth: the U.S. Dept. of Education found that in the decades since 1975, more blacks had enrolled in school, had improved their SAT scores by nearly 200 points and had lowered their dropout rate significantly. It also found that one in three blacks attended college, and that the number of blacks receiving bachelors and masters degrees had nearly doubled. A survey of student attitudes by the Minority Student Achievement Network, an Illinois-based educational advocacy group in 2002 and confirmed in other surveys, found that black students were as motivated, studied as hard, and were as serious about graduating as whites.
Cosby publicly bristles at criticism that he takes the worst of the worst behavior of some blacks and publicly hurls that out as the warped standard of black America. Cosby says that he does not mean to slander all, or even most blacks, as derelict, laggards and slackers. Yet that's precisely the impression he gives and the criticism of him for it is more than justified. Even the book title, Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors (a hint they're all losers) conveys that smear.
He did not qualify or provide a complete factual context for his blanket indictment of poor blacks. He made the negative behavior of some blacks a racial rather than an endemic social problem. In doing so, he did more than break the alleged taboo against publicly airing racial dirty laundry; he fanned dangerous and destructive stereotypes.
This is hardly the call to action that can inspire and motivate underachieving blacks to improve their lives. Instead, it further demoralizes those poor blacks who are doing the best to keep their children and themselves out of harm's way, often against towering odds, while still being hammered for their alleged failures by the Cosby's within and without their communities. Worse, Cosby's blame-the-victim slam does nothing to encourage government officials and business leaders to provide greater resources and opportunities to aid those blacks that need help.
Come on People, intended or not, continues to tar the black communities and the black poor as dysfunctional, chronic whiners, and eternally searching for a government hand-out. Come on, Cosby.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press).