Concluding Black History Month 2014

A person who knew my story would probably say that I was naive about race when I was younger.  At the undergraduate institution that I attended, I was taking a Winter Term class.  I was arguing against affirmative action, saying that people should be hired based on their qualifications, not their race.  My professor asked me, “Do you seriously think that an African-American woman has the same shot as you do in life?”  I sincerely answered “yes.”

Years later, at a graduate school that I attended, I was talking about race with an African-American friend.  The year 2000 was approaching, and Democrat Bill Bradley was running against Al Gore for the Democratic nomination for President.  My friend was continually saying that he was supporting Bradley because Bradley was sensitive to the issue of race and racism.  I then asked him, “Is racism still a problem?”  My friend was surprised that I even asked that question, and he launched into a lecture about racism, the problems of the inner-city, hate crimes, and the list goes on.

I’ve thought to myself more than once: What exactly did I believe back then?  I know that I wasn’t completely unaware of the problems of the inner-city.  That wasn’t my world, but I knew about those problems, on some level.  As a conservative, I supported school choice as a way to get poor African-American children out of inner-city schools, showing that I believed that inner-city schools were not particularly good.  I supported enterprise zones, showing that I was aware that poor areas needed investment if people there were to rise economically.  To believe that way, I had to be aware that it wasn’t easy for everyone, everywhere to pull himself or herself up by his or her own bootstraps, that there were places that lacked opportunities.  Still, for some reason, when I watched a news special about African-Americans protesting outside of a Korean-owned store in their neighborhood, I wondered how they could persecute that nice, hardworking Korean man.  I was unaware of their perspective: they wanted African-American-owned businesses in their neighborhood, not businesses owned by people of other races or ethnic groups.

Quite frankly, I cannot account for my worldview back then.  Maybe I felt that there were African-Americans in the inner-city, but that the fact that many were not demonstrated that racism was no longer a problem.  On whether or not I believed that an African-American woman had the same shot that I did, perhaps I thought that an African-American woman could be like Claire Huxtable, if she worked hard enough.  After reading for Black History Month this year, it did interest me that African-American women on average do economically better than African-American men.

I also think that there was a part of me that saw racism as individual prejudice, not as something that is systemic.  When my African-American friend was talking about the murder of James Byrd, I was definitely compassionate about what happened to James Byrd, but I did not know what that had to do with me.  Of course it’s wrong to kill someone on account of his race!  Most white people would agree that this is wrong!  But what I did not realize was that individual prejudice could lead to systemic racism: people’s individual attitudes influence whom they hire, for example.

I’m kind of struggling to write this post, so I will call it quits here.  I do not know what it is like to be black in America, but hopefully I learned more by reading the books that I did this month.

Published in: on February 28, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (3)  

Is Bill Cosby Right? 9

I finished Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), by Michael Eric Dyson.  In this post, I’ll talk about Dyson’s discussion of the economic situation of African-Americans.

Dyson acknowledges the economic improvements in the lives of many African-Americans, as more African-Americans become professionals, business-owners, and managers, and as the median household income for African-Americans rose between 1967 and 2003.  Yet, problems persist, and in some cases have become worse.  There was a 6 percent decline in median income for African-American households between 2000 and 2003.  The African-American unemployment rate when Dyson was writing was 10.1 percent.  The poverty rate for African-American households was over 24 percent.  As the number of African-Americans with manufacturing jobs went down by 18 percent between 1992 and 2002, more African-Americans entered the service sector—-”including professions like data processing, advertising, and housekeeping—-which employs 43 percent of the black workforce” (page 63).  These jobs, according to Dyson, “have shown weak growth and provide fewer benefits”, and thus only 52 percent of African-Americans have employer-sponsored health insurance, and less than 40 percent “have private pension plans” (page 63).  Over half of African-American families “live in major metropolitan areas”, and over 12 percent of the African-American population depends on public transportation, the cost of which is rising.  While there is an African-American middle class, Dyson argues, it “had a far less sure grasp of economic security” (page 62), and African-Americans on average lag behind whites in income and in how many receive employer-sponsored health insurance, while being ahead of whites in terms of poverty and employment in the service sector.  Dyson says that disparities in wealth lead to disparities in the quality of education that children receive, in terms of resources, the skills of teachers, and the quality of curricula.

I find Dyson’s statistics to be realistic.  Granted, most African-Americans are not poor, but it is far from rosy even for many who are not.

I should also say something about the second part of Dyson’s title, Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?  Dyson is rather critical of elements of the African-American middle class.  On page 218, he states: “And many black folk who have climbed upward are morally and intellectually irresponsible when they benefit from affirmative action—-not because they lack talent, but because they possess it and have been historically denied the opportunity to exercise it—-and then blast the black poor who have not received the slightest benefit from this measure of compensatory justice.”  More than once in this book, Dyson says that Cosby’s controversial “Pound Cake Speech” before the NAACP reflects the embarrassment of the middle and upper-economic class African-Americans at African-Americans among the lower economic classes, something that has existed for years.

A question that one can ask is: Does Dyson believe that African-Americans should conform more to white standards in order to advance?  He acknowledges that the purpose of curricula that consider ebonics is to help African-American children to learn white American English, and he does not seem to me to deem that to be a bad thing.  Dyson also praises Jesse Jackson for criticizing lyrics that demean women.  At the same time, Dyson does appear to admire elements of African-American culture that turn off whites, and many middle-class and upper-economic-class African-Americans as well: rap, baggy pants, the hip-hop culture, unusual names, etc.  Perhaps his hope is that these things can be preserved, even as poor African-Americans are given more opportunities for economic advancement.

Published in: on February 27, 2014 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Is Bill Cosby Right? 8

On page 250 of Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), Michael Eric Dyson quotes something that Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said about the program Amos ‘n’ Andy.  Gates stated in a November 12, 1989 New York Times piece:

“One of my favorite pastimes is screening episodes of ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ for black friends who think that the series was both socially offensive and politically detrimental.  After a few minutes, even hardliners have difficulty restraining their laughter.  ‘It’s still racist,’ is one typical comment, ‘but it was funny.’  The performance of those great black actors—-Tim Moore, Spencer Williams and Ernestine Wade—-transformed racist stereotypes into authentic black humor.  The dilemma of ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ however, was that these were the only images of blacks that Americans could see on TV.  The political consequences for the early civil rights movement were thought to be threatening.  The N.A.A.C.P. helped to have the series killed.”

Dyson’s quotation of Gates is in an endnote that goes with a paragraph on page 31.  There, Dyson talks about stereotypes of African-Americans in entertainment media: as “dumb, lazy, criminal, sex-crazed, and so on”, or as “coons, maids, cooks, butlers and the like” in early depictions.  Dyson states that “Cosby has attempted to resist stereotypes from the start of his career.”

There have been possible exceptions, though.  For example, Dyson notes that, although the show I Spy sought to ignore race and to depict the Bill Cosby-character as the Robert Culp’s character’s social equal, there was a time when the Cosby-character was posing as the Culp-character’s valet and tennis-trainer when they were undercover.  Cosby also played a doctor with Richard Pryor in California Suite, and the two of them were bumbling, leading critics to allege that they were depicting African-Americans as dumb.  Cosby lashed back in an ad in Variety: “Are we to be denied a right to romp through hotels, bite noses, and, in general, beat up one another in the way Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, Martin & Lewis, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin did—-and more recently as those actors did in the movie Animal House?  I heard no cries of racism in those reviews.  If my work is not funny—-it’s not funny.  But this industry does not need projected racism from critics.”

In my opinion, comedy entails depicting people as bumbling or as short-sighted.  This was the case with I Love Lucy, and all sorts of shows.  The problem, as Gates noted, occurred when African-Americans throughout the entertainment media were primarily portrayed as bumbling or as short-sighted.  That could perpetuate stereotypes.

Published in: on February 26, 2014 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Is Bill Cosby Right? 7

In my latest reading of Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), Michael Eric Dyson praises Jesse Jackson for acknowledging the importance of personal responsibility within the African-American community, while also working to address the structural problems that keep poor African-Americans down.  Jackson has been politically active because he realizes that laws and government policies affect the lives of poor African-Americans, yet he has also promoted literacy and has organized churches to mentor first-time offenders lacking a family.  Jackson also has a Wall Street Project, whose aim is to help bring capital to the ghetto, which can increase the local tax base and thus bring more money into the area’s public school system.  I hope that his efforts are bearing fruit.

Published in: on February 25, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (1)  

Is Bill Cosby Right? 6

In my latest reading of Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), Michael Eric Dyson discusses different views regarding the causes of poverty.  Some blame the poor individual, as if he or she is at fault for not working hard enough.  Some blame society for the lack of opportunities.  Still others appeal to luck as an important factor.  According to Dyson, there are many who may carry around in their minds more than one of these views.  Someone from the African-American middle-class, for example, may pat himself on the back for the hard work that he believes brought him to where he is, and yet he also recognizes that there is structural racism that was a barrier for him, and that is a barrier for other African-Americans.

On page 196, Dyson has a paragraph about the role of religion in influencing the self-perception of some poor people.  Some poor people feel bad because the prosperity Gospel says that those whom God blesses and favors will be materially prosperous, and they look at themselves, see their lack of material prosperity, and wonder if God loves them, or if they are doing something wrong.  Others consider their poverty a blessing or as God’s good will.  Still others believe that God wants to help them to fight for an improvement in their social or economic condition, “if not for themselves, then for their children’s sake.”

I thought about the Book of Proverbs as I read this.  I have been reading Proverbs for my Daily Quiet Time, and what I notice is that it manifests a variety of attitudes about the poor.  It conveys the message that those who do not work hard will likely end up poor, yet it acknowledges that oppression and injustice often hold people down economically.  It is optimistic, however, that God will intervene and punish the oppressors.  Does God intervene by helping the poor in their political or organizational push to improve their conditions, according to Proverbs?  I haven’t seen that in Proverbs so far.  The idea in Proverbs seems to be that God unilaterally steps in and punishes oppressors.  It does not favor people sitting back and letting God do all the work, however, for it promotes charity and generosity for the poor as something that pleases God, and that God will likely reward.

There are times when the Book of Proverbs appears to romanticize poverty, as if it is part of a simple, humbler lifestyle, which contrasts with the pride and the strife among the rich and powerful.  But there are other parts of Proverbs that are quite honest about the misery of poverty, especially in terms of the lack of social support that poor people have because people scorn them for their poverty.  This may be to promote compassion towards them, to encourage people to work hard so they don’t end up poor (and what about the working poor?), or both.

Is Bill Cosby Right? 5

In my latest reading of Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), Michael Eric Dyson talks about Bill Cosby’s family problems.  Dyson does this, not to air Cosby’s dirty laundry or to accuse Cosby of hypocrisy in attacking poor people’s family problems, but rather to argue that many families have problems, whether they be in the upper or lower economic classes.  Thus, according to Dyson, Cosby should show compassion towards poor African-American families facing problems, rather than judging them as he did in his 2004 speech before the NAACP.

Dyson also quotes remarks that Cosby made in the early days of his career about poverty.  This, according to Dyson, was “when [Cosby] wasn’t yet so far from poverty’s orbit that he could fly off into a rage against its victims” (page 179).  In that statement, Cosby acknowledged the cycle of poverty: poverty making people less attractive to others, the lack of jobs taking a toll on people and their family lives, etc.  Dyson states on page 180 that “That’s the Cosby we need to revive: a critical, clear, compassionate analyst, perhaps even an informal ethnographer, of the lives of the poor.”

Published in: on February 23, 2014 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Is Bill Cosby Right? 4

In his controversial “Pound Cake” speech before the NAACP in 2004, Bill Cosby criticized and ridiculed fashion trends within the African-American community: baggy pants, body piercings, etc.  Cosby was also critical of African-American parents who give their children unusual names, such as Shaniqua and Taliqua.

In Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), Michael Eric Dyson attempts to explain the phenomena that Cosby criticized in his speech.  A lot of this phenomena, according to Dyson, is an attempt by African-Americans to assert their identity, their individuality, and their freedom in a world that has historically looked down on them and held them back.  Dyson provides historical background on this.

While Dyson refers to a study that argues that employers tend to discriminate against people with unusual names, Dyson says that African-Americans should not be blamed for being discriminated against: that the goal should be to eliminate the discrimination, not to blame the African-Americans who give their children unusual names.  Dyson also points out that white American society has accepted certain prominent African-Americans with unusual names: Oprah Winfrey, Shaquille O’Neill, and Condoleeza Rice.  Perhaps his hope is that this development will continue, and expand.

On page 139, Dyson does what he has done elsewhere in the book: he has compared the Bill Cosby of the “Pound Cake” speech with the earlier Bill Cosby.  Cosby, for example, exercised his freedom in naming his children according to his hopes and dreams for them: some of the names that he gave them were not conventional, and they all began with E, for “excellence.”  Dyson asks: “Why can’t poor parents enjoy the same freedom with their children?”

Published in: on February 22, 2014 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Is Bill Cosby Right? 3

In my latest reading of Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), Michael Eric Dyson talks about a time when an African-American held him and a female companion up at gunpoint.  Dyson reasoned with the man as a fellow African-American, learning that the man was trying to feed his family.  What’s more, the man said that he himself had been held up at gunpoint not long before.

That made me think about the times that I have lived in cities and have come across pen-handlers.  I have bought them food, since I was often told that I should give pen-handlers food rather than money, for they would probably use whatever money I gave them on drugs or alcohol.  But suppose that was not always the case.  Suppose they were trying to collect money so they could feed their family, or save for a rainy day.  If that was the case, then I could understand why they preferred for me to give them money rather than a sandwich or a hot dog I bought for them at a nearby stand.

And suppose that they were collecting money to buy drugs or alcohol.  It’s wrong, but it’s understandable that people in dire economic straits would try to self-medicate.

Would I give to pen-handlers if I still lived in the city?  Well, I’d probably buy someone a meal here and there, but, overall, I would not.  I only have so much money.  I think that it is best to give to charities.

Published in: on February 21, 2014 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Is Bill Cosby Right? 2

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.

Published in: on February 20, 2014 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Is Bill Cosby Right? 1

I started Michael Eric Dyson’s 2005 book, Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?).  The book is a critique of Bill Cosby’s controversial 2004 speech before the NAACP.  Dyson contends that Cosby in that speech was unfairly targeting the African-American underclass, which needs compassion and assistance, not blame and belittlement.

I’ll have plenty of opportunities over the next few days to talk about Dyson’s criticisms of Cosby’s arguments, so I won’t focus on that here.  What I want to discuss in this post is what fascinated me in my latest reading of Dyson’s book, namely, Dyson’s point that Bill Cosby has made a conscious decision over the years not to talk about race.

Of course, Dyson in making that point is asking why Cosby suddenly decided to talk about race in his 2004 speech before the NAACP.  That’s a good question, but it’s not of primary interest to me right now.  What interested me was that Cosby’s ideas about racial equality actually influenced his long decision not to talk about race.  Cosby did not want to portray himself as a black man, per se, but rather as a human being who happened to be black.  He was promoting color-blindness: not looking at a person’s race.  On I Spy, he was just a guy who was working with the Robert Culp character.  In his comedic routines, Cosby talked about life rather than race.  Cosby did not want for black people on television to be problems (i.e., victims of the problem of racism), but to be people, with aspirations, hopes, and dreams, just like white people.  Cosby thought that could promote social equality between whites and African-Americans.

My impression is that Dyson, on some level, understands and is sympathetic towards where Cosby was coming from.  Dyson believes Cosby was ultimately wrong not to focus on race, but Dyson can see the logic in Cosby’s approach.  Dyson’s problem with Cosby’s approach is that it essentially pretended as if racism did not exist, as well as ignored African-American struggles and culture.  In effect, it presented a distorted picture of what race relations were like.

Let’s take The Cosby Show.  On the one hand, the show was good because it depicted an African-American doctor and lawyer.  One way to undermine the stereotype that African-Americans can’t be doctors and lawyers is by showing competent African-American doctors and lawyers on TV.  Hopefully, that would inspire African-Americans to want to become doctors and lawyers, and it would open white society up to accepting them as such.

But, on the other hand, whites may get the impression in watching The Cosby Show that most African-American families are upper middle-class, or that many African-Americans have a decent shot at becoming upper middle-class in this society.  They may conclude that racism is not really a problem holding African-Americans back, and that conditions are better for African-Americans than they actually are.

As I said some posts ago, Cosby’s show, A Different World, actually did address the topic of racism.  One could perhaps argue that it looked more at individual white people not liking blacks rather than systemic racism (though, of course, it is the former that leads to the latter), but there was an episode of A Different World that was pro-affirmative action, which indicates to me a support for systemic change.  I thought that criticisms of Cosby for not focusing on race were not entirely true.  Now, after reading parts of Dyson’s book, I see that Cosby himself acknowledged that he did not want to focus on race.  That makes me wonder how one can account for A Different World.  Was it an anomalous incident of Cosby responding to his critics’ concerns?  Was there a part of Cosby that wanted to look at race, but usually did not due to a fear of alienating white audiences?

Published in: on February 19, 2014 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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