The week after former funnyman turned morals evangelist, Bill Cosby made the rounds on the talk show circuit hyping his new book, Come on People, and his message that blacks need to knock off the blame game and get their act up together, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist James Watson rattled things up with his quip that blacks are dumber than whites. At first glance, Watson and Cosby seem light years apart. Cosby is black, an entertainer, backs civil rights causes and bankrolls black colleges, and seems passionate in his crusade for black excellence. Watson is white, a scientist, his passionate is research, and he has a penchant for making shoot from the lip zany cracks about women, gays, and blacks. One of Watson's zany cracks was that while he hoped everyone was equal "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true."
And one of Cosby's stock one liners in his book "The problems start early for black boys, and we can all see it. Call it ADHD or learning differences."
With only slight variations Cosby has repeated this over and over on the yak circuit the past few years. It's just another way of saying what Watson was ridiculed for saying namely that blacks are chronic troublemakers. Now Cosby and Watson have polar opposite reasons in making these bald, naked, assertions that are not supported by any factual data. Cosby wants to smack blacks in the face to get them to improve in school. Watson is just taking a cheap racial shot. But racial shot, or good intentions, the end result is the same. Watson and Cosby pound racial stereotypes ever deeper in the belief systems are far too many.
Cosby better than anyone should know this. He has spent much of his professional career battling the clown, coon and mammy image of blacks in Hollywood. He has written books touting the excellence and achievements of young blacks. He has given tons of money to charitable and educational causes whose goal is to provide resources and create opportunities for the legions of young blacks who want to improve their lives.
Though Cosby is one of the best-known blacks to fan negative racial stereotypes, he's hardly the only one. Despite much evidence to the contrary, many blacks routinely trash, demean and ridicule themselves. They unthinkingly and unquestioningly spin sordid tales of ghetto car jackers, gang bangers, drive-by-shooters, and dope dealers that supposedly turn black communities into war zones and cesspools of rot.
Some blacks in the rap and hip-hop world are deeply complicit in fanning this stereotype. The rap moguls have reaped king's ransoms peddling their music-video-cartoon version of the thug life. The rebellious young of all colors that shell out billions to enrich them are almost totally mindless of the social complexities, and the artistic and intellectual richness of the black experience. Some blacks further bolster the thug life stereotype by committing or winding up as victims of violence. The murders of rap icons Tupac Shakur, and Notorious BIG have been the stuff of cheap media sensationalism.
Cosby's off base remarks are not just grist for the mill of conservative talking heads to hammer blacks -- they certainly didn't need Cosby to do that -- they also confirm that the problems of poor blacks are self made and insoluble. Many employers admit that they won't hire young blacks because they believe they are lazier, more crime prone, and educationally deficient. Many politicians, even without the excuse of ballooning state and federal budget deficits and cutbacks, mightily resist efforts to increase spending on job, health and education programs for the poor while waging relentless war against affirmative action.
Through two failed and flawed presidential campaigns against Bush, the top white Democratic presidential candidates bought deeply into this. They were stone silent on issues such as urban investment, health care for the uninsured, fixing lousy inner-city public schools, racial profiling, affirmative action, the racial disparities in prison sentencing and the racially marred drug laws.
Despite the plummet in crime rates, racial stereotypes have ruthlessly embedded the popular and terrifying belief that crime in America comes exclusively with a young, black male face. The result: nearly one million blacks are warehoused in America's jails, the majority of them young blacks, and a significant number of them are there for non-violent, petty drug crimes.
Then there's Cosby himself. In times past, Cosby has been ripped by the same white and black conservatives that revere him for talking favorably about affirmative action, civil rights, and for his own sexual escapades. His wife, Camille Cosby, was slammed for having the temerity to suggest that racism may have been a factor in the murder of their son, Ennis Cosby.
Cosby didn't invent the shopworn stereotype that poor blacks are their own worst enemy. This belief has been around for a long time. But Cosby is a recognized and endearing icon, and when he speaks, people listen. The problem is what they're hearing is only a skewed, mangled view of the cause and effect of racial problems in America. That's the deep peril in the latest round of Cosby mythmaking.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press). firstname.lastname@example.org