Comedian Bill Cosby's partial recant that his knock of allegedly bad behaving blacks was a call for action and not a broad brush stroke indictment of all poor blacks, came too little, too late. Rightwing shock jocks, conservative black apologists and op-ed columnists have giddily embraced him as their darling, and many blacks cheer him for supposedly daring to speak what they call "the truth."
But what is that truth?
A special Census report in February 1999 on black achievement and the National Urban League's State of Black America annual reports found that the overwhelming majority of blacks graduate from high school; their drop-out rates are only marginally higher than that of whites (not fifty percent as Cosby claimed), and a significant number of black high school graduates go on to college.
A survey of student attitudes by the Minority Student Achievement Network, an Illinois-based educational advocacy group in 2002, found that black students were as motivated, studied as hard, and were as serious about graduating as whites. Even in the poorest of black neighborhoods, countless numbers of children live in non-welfare dependent, two-parent households where the children do not sell drugs, join gangs, get pregnant in their teens or mumble in unintelligible babble.
Cosby better than anyone should know these things. 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. Unthinkingly and unquestioningly, they 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. Even more tragic, some blacks further bolster the thug life stereotype by committing violence or becoming victims.
Cosby's ill-thought-out remarks are not just grist for the mill of conservative talking heads to hammer blacks, 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 war against affirmative action.
During the Democratic presidential primary debates, with the arguable exceptions of John Edwards and Howard Dean, the white Democratic presidential candidates were mute 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 deeply 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 now 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 last but not least, 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 hijinks. 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, and indeed the poor in general, 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. In this case, what they heard from him won't change their negative belief about the black poor.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist.