De ja vu. Dr. Bill Cosby’s comments on Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s acquittal are a variation of his myopic theme that race no longer matters much in America. He knows the historical, social and political antecedents well, but here’s a sampling of his remarks: “It is impossible to prove George Zimmerman is a racist; Don’t call him a murderer; Don’t bring race into the discussions about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman……..You can’t prove it; Zimmerman has a right to defend himself under the law.” (Cosby implied that he believed Trayvon attacked Zimmerman first because he saw him flash his gun and became afraid.)
Hopefully, revisiting an earlier Urban Perspective column will give readers a better understanding of Cosby’s position on Trayvon and Zimmerman and his penchant for denigrating poor Blacks and minimizing the importance of race.
“Bill Cosby demeans Blacks, especially young Black males in the inner city. Although fully aware of the antecedents of Black America’s condition, he ignores both history and systemic factors and blames their plight chiefly on Blacks themselves. He also tends to absolve the Black middle-class of any responsibility for Blacks’ current lack of unity and weak political and economic status.
Cosby often puts a disclaimer on his remarks , “I don’t want to talk about hatred of these people- those who behave abnormally and are mostly uneducated, over- incarcerated and under-represented in the ranks of active fathers…..I’m talking about a time when we protected our women and children………A little girl jumping rope, shot through the mouth. Grandmother saw this out of the window…..And people are waiting around for Jesus to come when Jesus is inside of them.” Cosby’s “Blacks are beyond redemption” litany proves education and wealth do not mitigate callous insensitivity.
For Bill Cosby, those largely responsible for Blacks’ current status are the poorest and most downtrodden among us. Ultimately, we are all responsible for improving our plight but his distorting the context of our lives is reprehensible, especially coming from one who knows downplaying the impact of racism is much too dangerous a game for Blacks to engage in.
Dr. Cosby says, “The lower economic people are not holding up the end of this deal.” He excoriates poor Blacks for failing to effectively raise their children, teach the “knuckleheads” proper English and for “spending hundreds of dollars for sneakers while refusing to spend two hundred dollars for an educational package like “Hooked on Phonics.” “God is tired of you…and so am I.”
An article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a 2008 issue of The Atlantic provides an illuminating glimpse of Cosby’s persona. His mixed-message arguments include, “Instead of waiting for handouts or outside help, disadvantaged Blacks should stand up by purging their own culture of noxious elements like gangsta rap” are cited throughout the article.
Coates points out the shift of white racism to Black culture is not as new as Cosby and social commentators make it out to be. For instance, W.E.B. DuBois was among the Black brain trust over a century ago that shared Cosby’s sense of anxiety that Blacks were not presenting their best selves to the world, were committing crimes and needed help to keep their sexuality in check. Coates says, “The same kind of people advocating for social reform back then denigrated those who didn’t play the piano.”
She contends Cosby’s argument that much of what haunts young Black men originates in post-segregation Black culture doesn’t square with history, citing sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s classic study, “The Negro Family in the United States (1939),” which argues urbanization was undermining the ability of Black men to provide for their families.
Whatever Cosby’s motivation and predilections, he does contribute generously to Black institutions and other causes, but does us all a disservice by employing right wing, “blaming the victim” assertions that reinforce the very behavior he so vehemently denounces.
His message that manhood means more than virility and swagger—that it calls for discipline and constant stewardship—and that the ultimate fate of Black people lies in their own hands, not in the hands of their antagonists is laudable. However, Cosby pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of Black Americans for justice and equal rights, and chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal justice system despite strong evidence that such reform is sorely needed. Cosby’s assertion that problems pervading Blacks are of recent vintage is simply wrong. Coates calls it “historical amnesia,” as is Cosby’s contention that today’s young Blacks are weaker and have dropped the ball. (They haven’t even been given the ball.)
Could it be that what drives Cosby’s message is the rage in America’s Blacks, a collective feeling of disgrace bordering on self-hatred Cosby will not, or cannot acknowledge. Perhaps his personal reality is secondary to the tidier, more appealing world that he wants and needs to create. Cosby’s retort: “I need people to stop saying that I can’t pull myself up by my own bootstraps. They say that’s a myth, but other people have their mythical stories, why can’t we have our own?”
Bill Cosby’s convoluted message is fodder for those who seek to maintain white privilege. And his position on Trayvon and Zimmerman are consistent with his wrongheaded quest to demean his own people who remain America’s most victimized-precisely because of their color.