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Responding to a controversial debate about race in America

In 'Is Bill Cosby Right?' professor Michael Eric Dyson debates the comedian's criticism of low-income blacks made at last year's NAACP awards. Read an excerpt

Image: 'Is Bill Cosby Right?'
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Race rebuttal
May 3: Professor Michael Eric Dyson talks with the "Today" show's Al Roker about his new book "Is Bill Cosby Right?" which responds to the comedian's controversial statements last year about low-income blacks.

Last year, comedian Bill Cosby sparked a heated debate about low-income blacks in America after a speech he gave at the NAACP awards dinner. His words criticizing poor blacks for their spending habits, speech patterns and parenting were the topic of countless newspaper editorials and conversations on TV and radio talk shows. Professor Michael Eric Dyson recently published a written response to Cosby's remarks. He was invited on the "Today" show to discuss his new book, "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" Read an excerpt.

Introduction: An Afristocrat in Winter 
“Do you view Bill Cosby as a race traitor?” journalist Paula Zahn bluntly asked me on her nighttime television show.

Zahn was referring to the broadside the entertainer had launched against irresponsible black parents who are poor and their delinquent children. Cosby’s rebuke came in a May 2004 speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. Not content with a one-off tirade, Cosby since then has bitterly and visibly crusaded against the declining morality and bad behavior of poor blacks. Six months into his battle, Zahn snagged the comic legend turned cultural warrior for his first in-depth interview. Cosby clarified his comments and reinforced his position. No, he wasn’t wrong to air the black community’s dirty laundry. Yes, he would ratchet up the noise and pace of his racial offensive. And he surely didn’t give a damn about what white folk thought about his campaign or what nefarious uses they might make of his public diatribe. One could see it on Cosby’s face: This is war, the stakes are high and being polite or politically correct simply won’t do.

Since I was one of the few blacks to publicly disagree with Cosby, I ended up in numerous media outlets arguing in snippets, sound bites, or ripostes to contrary points of view. In the New York Times a few days after his remarks, I offered that Cosby’s comments “betray classist, elitist viewpoints rooted in generational warfare,” that he was “ill-informed on the critical and complex issues that shape people’s lives,” and that his words only “reinforce suspicions about black humanity.”

Still, I don’t consider Cosby a traitor, and I said so to Zahn. In fact, I defended his right to speak his mind in full public view. After all, I’d been similarly stung by claims of racial disloyalty when I wrote my controversial book on Martin Luther King, Jr. I also said that while Cosby is right to emphasize personal behavior (a lesson, by the way, that many wealthy people should bone up on), we must never lose sight of the big social forces that make it difficult for poor parents to do their best jobs and for poor children to prosper. Before going on Zahn’s show, I’d already decided to write a book in response to Cosby’s relentless assault. But my appearances in the media, and the frustrating fragmentation of voice that one risks in such venues, pushed me to gain a bigger say in the issues Cosby has desperately if clumsily grabbed hold of. This book is my attempt to unpack those issues with the clarity and complexity they demand.

Of course, the ink and applause Cosby has won rest largely on a faulty assumption: that he is the first black figure to stare down the “pathology” that plagues poor blacks. But to believe that ignores how figures from black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, in varying contexts, with differing results, have spoken controversially about the black poor. Equally intriguing is the leap of faith one must make in granting Cosby revered status as a racial spokesman and critic. He has famously demurred in his duties as a racial representative. He has flatly refused over the years to deal with blackness and color in his comedy. Cosby was defensive, even defiant, in his views, as prickly a racial avoider as one might imagine for a man who traded so brilliantly on dimensions of black culture in his comedy. While Cosby took full advantage of the civil rights struggle, he resolutely denied it a seat at his artistic table. Thus it’s hard to swallow Cosby’s flailing away at youth for neglecting their history, and overlooking the gains paid for by the blood of their ancestors, when he reneged on its service when it beckoned at his door. It is ironic that Cosby has finally answered the call to racial leadership forty years after it might have made a constructive difference. But it is downright tragic that he should use his perch to lob rhetorical bombs at the poor.

For those who overlook the uneven history of black engagement with the race’s social dislocations and moral struggles — and who conveniently ignore Cosby’s Johnny-come-lately standing as a racial critic — Cosby is an ethical pioneer, a racial hero. In this view, Cosby is brave to admit that “lower economic people” are “not parenting” and are failing the civil rights movement by “not holding up their end in this deal.” Single mothers are no longer “embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband.” A single father is no longer “considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father” of his child. And what do we make of their criminal children? Cosby’s “courage” does not fail. “In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison ... I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol?” Before he is finished, Cosby beats up on the black poor for their horrible education, their style of dress, the names they give their children, their backward speech and their consumptive habits. As a cruel coda, Cosby even suggests to the black poor that “God is tired of you.”

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