It's All in the Delivery
In a forum I frequent, there was a rather lengthy discussion on the remarks Bill Cosby made recently about blacks. The one most often quoted from his speech to the NAACP on May 17, 2004 was as follows:
But the comment that seemed to anger many (most?) African-American members was from an interview he did afterwards defending his actions and was made in response to comments by some that Cosby shouldn't be airing the "dirty laundry" of the black race in public.
I've already dealt with what I believe Mr. Cosby was really saying (you can read the article by clicking here) but for the sake of this article, I will briefly reiterate my position. Mr. Cosby was commenting on the current condition of many blacks, 24.1% of whom live in poverty according to 2002 statistics yet they only make up 12.7% of the US population. (Whites, by contrast, have about an 8% poverty rate while making up 77.7% of the population.) His remarks were disparaging of some behaviors by some blacks, especially in areas where most poor blacks live: "the ghettos" or "the projects" or the inner-city. He came down hard on the role models for young blacks in these areas. Additionally, his remarks essentially laid responsibility for getting out of poverty at the feet of every black individual.
Now contrast that to what Rev. Al Sharpton said during the Democratic National Convention this year. In part, his speech said:
Essentially, Rev. Sharpton is saying that the role models for poor black youth in the ghettos are mostly drug dealers, hoodlums and gangsters. (Children live what they learn and they learn from example based on what they see in their every day life.) He was commenting on the current condition of many blacks. His remarks were disparaging of some beavhiors by some blacks, especially in the areas where most poor blacks live. He came down hard on the role models for young blacks in these areas. And finally, he laid responsibility for getting out of poverty at the feet of every black individual.
So why did the remarks by Mr. Cosby cause such a fuss and raise so many hackles within the black community yet the remarks by Rev. Sharpton were received with almost universal praise and applause? Both men are black. Both lived a rags to riches story. Both men are active in causes the are aimed at helping blacks to rise above poverty. Both had essentially the same message.
Now, it may seem as if I'm switching gears here, but please bear with me. Recently, in the same forum, there was a big to-do when someone commented on how Barack Obama was such an intelligent and well-spoken man. Apparently, within the black community, the phrase "well-spoken" is a back-handed compliment, carrying with it the implication that most blacks are NOT well-spoken and therefore it's shocking that "this" one is. Saying that a black individual is well-spoken is akin to saying that a Jew is generous or that an Irishman is sober. In other words, it's seen as voicing surprise that the individual in question doesn't fall into the classic stereotype for the group in question. Which brings me back to the topic of this article.
What I'm about to say next will, I'm sure, offend many. But I truly believe that the reason for the different receptions for what was essentially the same message was due to the fact that Mr. Cosby is more verbally eloquent than Rev. Sharpton. Mr. Cosby doesn't "sound black" (according to the stereotypes, that is). Rev. Sharpton does sound like the stereotypical black preacher. It seems to me that being told by Rev. Sharpton that it's up to each individual to pick himself up by the bootstraps if he wants to better his life would, to many (most?) blacks, be like being admonished by one's father. On the other hand, being told that by someone like Mr. Cosby would be like being told by a white man that one is well-spoken. The sense I get from the comments I have heard, the articles I have read and the people I have spoken to are that Rev. Sharpton hasn't forgotten his roots— he still remembers he's a black man. Mr. Cosby, on the other hand, is viewed as having "sold out" to "the man" and is therefore part of the white power structure that admittedly still exists in this country. I find this attitude disturbing because it is as racist as the stereotypes that still permeate our society and make blacks three times more likely to live in poverty than whites despite the fact that for every black individual in this country, there are more than six whites.
The message of personal responsibility is one that everyone must learn and take to heart. It is not a lesson that only blacks have to learn and live. In fact, I'd feel comfortable saying that whites have the more pressing need to learn to be personally responsible because most are ignorant as to how their actions impact minorities and the rest of the world. But minorities who have lived with discrimination and who know the costs and the pain it causes cannot stop diligently ridding themselves of discriminatory beliefs, however subtle they may be.
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