Whether or not Barack Obama wins, black America will continue to argue over the "responsibility" debate sparked by Bill Cosby's trenchant views on that failureby Myron Magnet / November 23, 2008 / Leave a comment
Barack Obama says America needs to have a conversation about race. In fact, one is already in full swing—and it is happening among African-Americans. Its spark was a speech that television star Bill Cosby gave in 2004. In books and articles, on talk shows and in town meetings, at barbecues and barber shops, African-Americans have been arguing over his words ever since. Their discussion is the most hopeful development in race relations in years.
With a 50 per cent high school dropout rate and a 70 per cent illegitimacy rate, with African-Americans convicted for half the nation’s murders though making up only 13 per cent of the population, black America—despite the rise of a large middle class—is in trouble. “We can’t blame white people,” Cosby said in his contentious speech, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs Board school desegregation ruling, “it’s not what they’re doing to us. It’s what we’re not doing.” Cosby went on to quote Jesse Jackson’s words, “No one can save us from us but us.”
Sure, racism hasn’t vanished, as Cosby acknowledges in his 2007 book Come On People, a follow-up to his speech written with Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint. “But for all the talk of systemic racism… we must look at ourselves and understand our own responsibility.” Even with lingering discrimination, “there are more doors of opportunity open for black people today than ever before.” When people tell you, “‘You can’t get up, you’re a victim,'” Cosby warns, “that’s when you know it’s the devil you’re hearing.”
Why, ask Cosby and Poussaint, do so many blacks, especially men, find it so hard to grasp the opportunity that is theirs for the taking? Their answer is that the social structure and culture of poor black neighbourhoods distort the psychology of children who grow up there (the image, below right, shows a scene from “The Wire”: the television drama that tackles drugs and crime in black Baltimore). The authors zero in on the destructive effects of fractured families and slapdash child rearing. “In the neighbourhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on,” Cosby said in his speech. “You have this pile-up of these sweet beautiful things born by nature—raised by no one.”
Certainly their fathers aren’t raising them. That 70 per cent illegitimacy rate is concentrated in poor neighbourhoods,…