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Blacks, Bill Cosby and Deviance

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Anyone who knows me knows that I am a Bill Cosby enthusiast. Arguably even an apologist. Superficially, there's always been something about his safe, family friendly humor and eccentric sweater style (which Urban Dictionary troublesomely describes as akin to a vomiting of Fruity Pebbles). He also wears hoodies. I love hoodies. More substantively, like many hip-hop and Reagan babies, I've always been appreciative of the positive images of blackness offered in much of his programming from The Cosby Show to A Different World. These representations were an encouraging reprieve from the crack-riddled South Bronx that I grew up in as a kid. Moreover, as is well known, his shows were a sharp break from the depictions of black deviance that were in vogue in the 1980s and 1990s (and arguably still popular).

But Dr. Cosby is continuously making it harder for me to vouch for him. Sometimes I feel like the late Johnnie Cochran defending this man. A recent piece by the entertainer titled "A Plague Called Apathy" was published this weekend in the New York Post tabloid. Cosby's opinion piece has a slice of the black media and blogosphere up in arms, and the other part looking at him askance with a serious side-eye. A friend of mine commented on his increasingly conservative posture by asking "Is Bill Cosby going broke? Does he need money?"

Cosby's muddled column offers an odd range of rhetorical strategies that include: castigation of blacks for dietary choices and putatively poor parenting; a critique of the supposedly intergenerational transmission of cultural deficiency; a public chiding of Michael Jackson's and Whitney Houston's families for not being involved enough in their lives before their deaths; and appraisals of Black Muslim culture, and abstention from drugs and alcohol. All of these things are capped by a sharp disavowal of the idea that blacks should not "air out their dirty laundry." To this, the former pudding representative quips, "How much sense does that make? What are you doing with your dirty laundry? You walk around with it!"

Now much of this isn't new. Cosby has been pushing this point since his controversial "Pound Cake" speech nine years ago at a NAACP ceremony. Since then there have been a variety of commentaries from journalists, academics, and pundits that range from unpersuasive to incisive (one useful insight is offered here).

There are some obvious concerns with Cosby's rhetoric. First is the justifiable, and quite accurate concern that his critiques ignore structural inequality and place too much emphasis on individual responsibility. Then there is the fear that such commentary might be used as weaponry for conservatives in ways that both blacks and whites, conservatives and liberals, have historically used black deviance to achieve ideological and policy goals. Indeed, when conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch (chairman of the News Corporation, which owns the New York Post that Cosby published in) cosigned with Cosby's comments, you know it's not a good look.

Unsurprisingly, Cosby's comments about emulating Muslims alienated some of the black conservative constituency you would expect to support his self-help, bootstrap ideology. (In the current era of unfettered Islamophobia, anything that even reeks of Islam is to be quickly dismissed). Black Republican Allen West quickly denounced Cosby, recklessly tweeting "Bill Cosby said we should [be] more like Muslims...{You] mean honor killings, beheadings, suicide bombings? Hope [you're] kidding sir." On the other side of the political spectrum, The Root writer Tracy Clayton accurately categorizes Cosby's remarks as "classist and elitist" in ways that are quite similar to President Obama's own admonishment of blacks during speeches.

But I would caution against complete dismissals of Cosby's critiques. As Dave Chappelle noted in a stand up, people forget (or don't know) that Cosby grew up in public housing in North Philadelphia; was a high school dropout that ended up receiving a doctorate in education (Ed.D) decades later; helped fund the 1992 Spike Lee film Malcolm X that helped reinvigorate political and cultural interest in the black activist; and, with his wife Camille, donated $20 million to Spelman College in 1988 (the largest gift to date to any HBCU). While this certainly makes him no expert or authority figure, I do think it gives him some license to speak about issues impacting poor communities of color.

Critics are right when they point to how Cosby's diatribes are often devoid of serious discussions of structural inequality. Some, however, excuse, if not ignore cultural explanations of inequality. The problem is, completely structural interpretations are often unsatisfying. These accounts can overlook important factors and realities that are readily apparent to members of poor communities. Liberals often want to point to structure until something happens to them. Its quite easy to point to "structure" as an explanation for criminal activity until an individual is a witness or victim of a crime, which lends some credence to the idea that "a conservative is just a liberal who has been mugged." Then it becomes about the particular transgressor. As one of my mentors and OG's told me less philosophically "some people ignore the fact that some people do ghetto, ignorant shit."

Similar, but more measured arguments about the role of culture could be presented about education, employment, and social networks. In fact, these arguments have been made. A substantive part of sociological and social science research is about the age-old interaction between agency and structure. In an effort to move beyond the misplaced "culture of poverty" debates of the late 20th century, some scholars have revived discussions on culture and inequality in ways that attempt to be thoughtful and responsible. This is no easy task though. If history can provide any lesson on this issue, it is the unfortunate reality that culture (on the individual and group level) has been used to demonstrate the resiliency of poor folk as well as demonize them.

This is one of the key issues that emerge from the Cosby hoopla and similar discussions that often get understated and underexamined. Do racial minorities (and their allies) talk about some of the dirty laundry at the risk of it being used against them in the policy world? Do they instead point strategically to structural inequalities and quietly discuss deviance in intra-racial circles? I do not have the answers, and its pretty clear that Bill Cosby doesn't either. But it might be worth being completely honest about inequality, culture and structure because as the famed black writer Ishmael Reed properly observed almost a quarter-century ago, black pathology has been, and will arguably continue to be "big business," irrespective of its source.