In my latest reading of Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, Michael Eric Dyson cited studies that contradict Bill Cosby’s assertions in his controversial 2004 speech before the NAACP. Bill Cosby chided the poor African-American parents who bought their kids expensive sneakers rather than Hooked-on-Phonics; Dyson referred to a study indicating that gross materialism was not a significant problem among poor African-American young people, many of whom were spending a lot of their money on necessities. Bill Cosby lambasted anti-intellectualism within African-American communities; Dyson responded that the African-American drop-out rate is dramatically lower than Cosby said, and that there are studies indicating that African-Americans are as (in some cases more) committed to intellectualism on average as whites. Cosby criticized crime within African-American communities; Dyson cited a study indicating that there was a higher incidence of illegal drug use among white twelfth-graders in 2003 than among African-American twelfth-graders.
In some cases, I was wondering how some of what Dyson was saying could co-exist. For example, Dyson referred to a study indicating that African-American parents, on average, are more involved in their children’s education than white parents. Earlier in the book, in responding to Cosby’s attack on negligent African-American parents, Dyson asks how poor African-American parents can be attentive to their children, when the parents are working long hours just barely to make ends meet. Both, I am sure, are aspects of reality, in some way, shape, or form.
Incidentally, Dyson does quote John WcWhorter, whose book, Losing the Race, challenges the sorts of narratives that Dyson holds. Cosby in his speech was criticizing the linguistic tendencies within poor African-American communities, and Dyson quoted a statement by McWhorter, a linguist, that Cosby himself “speaks more ebonics than he knows” (McWhorter’s words).
All of this is interesting, but what I find most fascinating is when Dyson quotes things that Cosby has said that contradict or undermine Cosby’s remarks in his 2004 speech. Cosby disregarded inequalities in education in his speech; in his dissertation about two decades before, however, he acknowledged them, and made arguments on the basis of them. In his 2004 speech, Cosby was critical of the way many poor African-Americans talk; his show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, however, featured African-American dialect, and Dyson on pages 78-79 quotes a beautiful passage in which Cosby acknowledged (maybe even appreciated) the distinct black southern dialect of his 85-year old grandfather. Cosby in his 2004 speech bemoaned crime among African-Americans, but Dyson quotes a statement Cosby made years earlier that criticized the unfairness and inequality of the American criminal justice system.
At times, in my reading thus far, Dyson appears to criticize Cosby for hypocrisy. Cosby is critical of African-Americans who drop out of school or do not do well in school, when Cosby himself was not a good student and dropped out of high school; Cosby’s road to his doctorate was rather roundabout. Cosby was bemoaning alleged materialism within poor African-American communities, when Cosby himself has catered to materialism by appearing in numerous commercials.
I’ll stop here. So far, I’m finding this book to be much better than many of the Amazon reviews said it was.