Which Ideology Can Lead Black Americans to Happiness and Wealth?

Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson appearing on MSNBC to equate the significance of the Boston bombers’ religion with their musical tastes:

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While some black studies professors are busy indoctrinating students in strident anticapitalism and racial supremacism, and other inhabitants of the Ebony Tower are preaching only some­what less extreme versions of the same ideology, a very different message about race has been resonating with ordinary, hard­ working black Americans. In recent years, the comedian and ac­tor Bill Cosby has been speaking to audiences in black churches and other community centers, lamenting the prevalence among black Americans of unwed teenage mothers and absentee fathers, violent and misogynistic gangsta rap, and black ­on ­black crime. He has been calling on young black people to reject these self­ destructive social pathologies and to embrace traditional Ameri­can values of self ­respect and personal responsibility.

In an Atlantic article about Cosby’s crusade, Ta­Nehisi Coates maintains that Cosby’s call for “hard work and moral reform” rather than “protests and government intervention” res­onates with “conservative black Americans who are convinced that integration, and to some extent the entire liberal dream, robbed them of their natural defenses.” Coates points out that in 2004, the New York Times found that black parents in Lou­isville, Kentucky, the site of a historic battle over school deseg­regation in 1975–76, were now “more interested in educational progress than in racial parity.” Coates also cites a survey showing that 71 percent of American blacks consider rap “a bad influ­ence.” Coates quotes lines from one of Cosby’s speeches in which the comedian assails some black Americans’ uninformed image of themselves as Africans: “We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don’t know a damn thing about Africa— with names like Shaniqua, Shaliqua, Mohammed, and all that crap, and all of them are in jail.”

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Whatever one may make of Cosby’s diagnoses and prescrip­tions, one thing is clear: he’s no hustler. On the contrary, he’s a very rich and respected cultural figure who, by wading into these waters, only risks alienating millions of people whose af­fection and admiration for his work have made his fortune. Yet he’s taken this step because he recognizes that the black “leaders” of our era (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton) and the academic Black Studies establishment (Gates, West, Karenga) not only have failed to say things that need to be said, but have in many cases encouraged the kinds of pathologies Cosby is alarmed about.

Not surprisingly, a leading black academic, Michael Eric Dyson, has taken on Cosby in a very big way. Dyson, who has taught at DePaul, the University of North Carolina, Columbia, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania, is now a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and can frequently be heard serving up commentary on NPR, CNN, and Real Time with Bill Maher. In addition, he is an ordained minister who, in 2010, at the upscale New York restaurant Cipriani, officiate at the wedding of a deejay named La La and a pro basketball played named Carmelo Anthony, who at the time were starring in a VH1 reality series. (“The 320 guests,” according to Dy­son’s Wikipedia entry, “included Justin Timberlake, Kim Kar­dashian, Khloe Kardashian, Lamar Odom, Ciara, Spike Lee, Ludacris, Kelly Rowland, and LeBron James.”) Dyson, it should be noted, is considered an academic star and is paid a salary in the high six figures. This means that he’s several times more handsomely compensated than many of America’s most distin­guished scholars in the humanities and social sciences—or, to look at it in another way, he takes home a bigger paycheck than any dozen or so adjunct professors put together, people who are far more gifted and accomplished than he is and carry much heavier course loads.

Over lunch in Philadelphia in 2010, Alan Charles Kors brings up the subject of Dyson, his former (and much younger) col­league at the University of Pennsylvania. “For years,” says Kors, “Dyson was the highest­ paid member of the Arts and Sciences faculty at Penn.” This is an astonishing distinction for anyone as young as Dyson, no matter what his professional record. Dyson’s oeuvre, which includes books with titles like Reflecting Black, Making Malcolm, Race Rules, Between God and Gangsta Rap, Debating Race, and Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip-Hop, hardly explains his disproportionate level of compensation. “He’s a huckster,” says Kors bluntly. Kors explains that Dyson was hired by Penn’s Department of Religious Studies “to teach a course on ‘Great Religious Thinkers of the West.’ Each time around it focuses on a different figure, and over the years they’ve done Augustine, Luther, Tillich, and so forth. Dyson taught it more than once.” And whom did Dyson focus on when he taught it? Tupac Shakur. “As a great religious thinker,” Kors adds drily. After he spent a few years of teaching this sort of thing, “Georgetown offered him a higher salary which Penn couldn’t match, so he left.” Noting the tiresome predictability with which Dyson flouts what Karenga calls “traditional white studies” and shamelessly follows the latest academic fashion, Kors wonders: “What would he say if you put him on truth serum? People tend to convince themselves of the positions that are most profitable to hold.”

The dedication page of Dyson’s 2005 book Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? consists of a long list of names, each followed by a cloying phrase plainly designed to shape a picture of the author as a virtuous, sensi­tive soul (“To . . . Who fed me and taught me the true mean­ing of ministry and manhood”; “To . . . Who fed me and first inspired a young pastor to pursue a Ph.D.”). All this narcissism is prelude to a stunning nasty personal attack in which Dyson lambastes Cosby for his “overemphasis on personal responsibil­ity” and supposed indifference to the “structural features” that underlie black poverty. (To which one might reply that Cosby’s crusade is a reaction to a half century of preoccupation with “structural features” that has proved disastrous.) Dyson pro­fesses to be offended by Cosby’s insistence that young black people learn to speak and write proper English—or, as Dyson puts it, in his own surprisingly shaky English: “Cosby also spies the critical deficiency of the black poor in the linguistic habits, displaying his ignorance about ‘black English’ and ‘Ebonics.’” Dyson also accuses Cosby of “disregard for the hip­hop genera­tion,” claiming that the comic’s “poisonous view of young folk who speak a language he can barely parse simmers with hostil­ity and resentment”—even though Cosby’s entire campaign is plainly motivated by a deep concern for those young people. Dy­son even has the nerve to contrast Cosby to his own wonderful self, writing about his visit to a youth detention center where he and his wife “were touched, even moved to tears” by the young thieves and murderers there and quoting several pages of com­ments by the inmates about how much his visit meant to them.

Countering Cosby, Dyson maintains that “body piercing and baggy clothes express identity among black youth.” Yes, but what kind of identity—an individual identity marked by self­ respect or a group identity marked by mindless copycatting? As for hip­hop, Dyson considers Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Russell Simmons good role models because they’ve “made mil­lions from their clothing lines.” And he claims that “[n]ames like Shaniqua and Taliqua,” ridiculed by Cosby, “are meaning­ful cultural expressions of self­ determination and allow relatively powerless blacks to fashion their identities outside the glare of white society.” Yes, and keep them from finding jobs. “Cosby’s comments,” gripes Dyson, “bolster the belief that less money, political action and societal intervention—and more hard work and personal responsibility—are the key to black success.” Cosby doesn’t exactly argue this, but the dismal failure of Great Society programs only proves how right Cosby is when he argues that simply throwing government money at social problems won’t solve them. After two or three generations of self­ serving antics by increasingly appalling con artists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, the positive response by black Americans to Cosby’s campaign reflects a widespread recognition that it is time for a leading black voice to emphasize personal responsibility. (Even Barack Obama, after all, has said many of the things that Cosby has said.)

Repeatedly, Dyson chastises Cosby for not having been more preoccupied during the course of his career with his “black iden­tity.” He repeats this term over and over for pages (noting, of course, in dutiful postmodern fashion, that “the focus on race . . . surely doesn’t block the consideration of other equally compel­ling features of identity rooted in gender or sexual orientation or religion or class”). “For most of his career,” Dyson complains, “Bill Cosby has avoided race with religious zeal.” Or as he puts it elsewhere in his book, a bit less coherently: “Cosby has for the most part banished the galvanizing virtues of blackness to the realm of inference.” Meaning what? Is every writer, artist, or performer who belongs to a minority group obliged, in his work, to constantly make a point of his membership in that group — especially when his membership in that group is written on his face? “Despite Cosby’s brilliant work, race hasn’t disappeared; it seems he might have as usefully led us through the battlefields of race instead of around them,” Dyson complains. This is the most unfair kind of criticism: Dyson is, in effect, going after Cosby for not being Richard Pryor. In any case, it’s untrue that Cosby has “avoided race”: it was impossible, for example, to watch The Cosby Show without noting that the walls of the Huxtable family home were covered with African and African­-influenced works of art and even featured an anti­apartheid poster (which, as it happens, Cosby kept in place over NBC’s fierce objections). In reply to those who defend Cosby’s criticisms of inner­-city social pathologies by noting “his majestic philanthropy over the years,” Dyson argues that defending Cosby on such grounds is “like saying that it’s all right to rape a young lady because you’ve given a million dollars to a women’s college.” (The allusion here is to Cosby’s munificence: his donation of $20 million to Spelman College was the single largest contribution ever made to any his­torically black college or university.)

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For blacks, Cosby has been a trailblazer. Yet he’s condemned by Dyson for not having been a grandstander. Dyson repeatedly accuses Cosby of lacking courage. “Cosby,” Dyson claims, “is so obviously embarrassed by the masses of black folk that he has taken to insulting and, truly, intimidating them.” But if Cosby were embarrassed by his fellow blacks, the last thing he’d want to do would be to run around the country talking to them about themselves. Dyson likens Cosby to the black “elites” of previous generations who criticized the black poor because they damaged the race’s image, and depicts him as a member of a snooty black elite that looks down on working-­class blacks; yet it’s Dyson who belongs to a black elite, namely the black power establish­ment based in the academy and in various “activist” rackets. Far from lacking courage, Cosby has shown considerable bravery in taking on that establishment, which (as Dyson exemplifies) is not above answering cogent critiques with personal attacks.

Cosby can’t win with Dyson: though on I Spy in 1965 Cosby “shattered television’s race barrier as the first Negro to star in a network series” (unless you count CBS’s Amos ’n Andy in 1951– 53 and Nat King Cole’s 1956–57 variety show on NBC), his “race on the series was no big deal at all, a point that made him the darling of many white critics.” Perhaps Dyson is too young to easily grasp that in 1965, the fact that the program didn’t make a “big deal” out of Cosby’s race was a “big deal.” As for The Cosby Show, Dyson approvingly quotes a passage from Gates indicting that series for “reflecting the miniscule [sic] integration of blacks into the upper middle class” and thus “throw[ing] the blame for poverty back onto the impoverished.” It is striking to see Cosby criticized by Gates and Dyson, professors at major universities who earn huge salaries, for portraying a black fam­ily at or near their and his own socioeconomic levels—thereby providing blacks at lower socioeconomic levels with an image of a life to strive for, as well as of responsible parenting and profes­sionalism.

Dyson does acknowledge that in his comic routines, Cosby, “like a jazz artist,” has “constructed narratives of sometimes haunting ethical beauty that offered insight into the human condition.” But he also accuses Cosby of not being “practiced or articulate in matters of public negotiation with the subtleties, nuances and complexities of racial rhetoric.” I would counter that there is absolutely no sign in Dyson’s book of subtlety, nuance, or complexity—and I would also point out that one of the people whom he does celebrate for these virtues is Al Sharpton. Dyson has no respect for Cosby’s comedy philosophy, which he quotes: “I don’t think you can bring the races together by joking about the differences between them. I’d rather talk about the similarities, about what’s universal in their experiences.” This philosophy underlies the work of all great authors and artists, but it’s not a philosophy that’ll win you a tenure­-track job in Black Studies.

Dyson sneers at Cosby’s complaints about “[t]he poverty pimps and the victim pimps”—but Dyson refuses to acknowledge that there are such pimps, and that Jesse Jackson stands at the head of that pack. As it happens, Dyson contrasts Cosby un­favorably with Jackson, whom he praises for understanding “the dynamic relationship between personal and social responsibil­ity” and calls “the most gifted social activist and public moralist of our times.” (This is the same “public moralist” who called New York City “Hymietown.”) Jackson, Dyson adds, “has also worked tirelessly to erase social injustice and the structural inequalities that prevent blacks and other poor people from enjoy­ ing the opportunity to exercise their full citizenship.” Absent from this tribute is any mention of the damning revelations contained in the book Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson, in which Kenneth R. Timmerman demonstrates conclusively that Jackson is a world­class shakedown artist whose specialité de la maison is threatening to publicly attack companies as racist unless they grease his (or a crony’s) palm. (In 2001, University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos recounted in the Rocky Mountain News Jackson’s boycott of Anheuser-­Busch, a com­pany whose “warm feelings for the Jackson family overflowed to the point where the corporation gave Jackson’s sons a beer distributorship.” Asked Campos: “How can a man who at this point retains all the moral authority of a professional extortion­ist continue to hold himself out as one of America’s political and spiritual leaders?”)

Dyson would seem to be a perfect example of Steele’s top­ drawer hustler—the kind who’s managed to hustle his way to the summit of the Black Studies pile. Certainly excellence has nothing to do with it: Dyson is neither a clear nor an original thinker, and is an absolutely terrible writer. “To a degree,” he writes in a typical sentence, “the black elite acted out of neces­sity, but perhaps to a larger degree, their actions proved how they had unconsciously drank [sic] in the poisonous view of the black poor that whites forced on them.” He is especially fond of painfully awkward metaphors: “Every time the black aristocratic finger pointed at poor black folk’s pathology, four more fingers of white moral unease folded into its palm.” And: “The aesthetic ecology in which they [black youth] are nurtured surely contains poisonous weeds and quicksand, glimpsed in sexist tirades on wax [?] and the hunger to make violence erotic.” His illiteracy, moreover, is matched by his innumeracy: “In 1954,” he writes, “the neonatal mortality rate for blacks per one thousand live births registered at 27 percent.” This statement is followed by several others in which he similarly misuses the word “percent.” (Plainly he means to say that the mortality rate was 2.7 percent.)

Ta­Nehisi Coates admits to having considered Cosby an elitist—but he notes that his own father, a member of the older black generation, respects the comedian as a voice for “black empowerment.” It is for that reason, says Coates, that “Cosby’s argument has resonated with the black mainstream.” Yet al­though Coates—who suggests that Cosby is the ideological heir not only of Booker T. Washington, the “conservative” preacher of black self­reliance, but also of the radicals Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, both of whom “fault[ed] blacks for failing to take charge of their destiny”—remains critical of much of Cosby’s message, he treats Cosby with respect and implicitly rejects the effort by Black Studies figures like Karenga to sell young people on the myth of a noble and glorious Egyptian heritage. “Black people are not the descendants of kings,” Coates asserts. “We are—and I say this with big pride—the progeny of slaves. If there’s any majesty in our struggle, it lies not in fairy tales but in those humble origins and the great distance we’ve traveled since.”

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