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May 27, 2004

Where Is the NAACP Leadership on Personal Responsibility?

Bill Cosby was widely praised for his speech last week at the NAACP gala commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education in Washington, D.C., where he called for personal responsibility among the "lower income people" of the black community. (If you missed his remarks, see this post, this article recounting additional parts of his speech, and this Cosby press release).

Richard Leiby, who broke the story, initially described the reaction of a few of the prominent black leaders in attendance as follows:

When Cosby finally concluded, Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and NAACP legal defense fund head Theodore Shaw came to the podium looking stone-faced. Shaw told the crowd that most people on welfare are not African American, and many of the problems his organization has addressed in the black community were not self-inflicted.

Several days later, Clarence Page described what might be behind those "stone-faced" reactions:

Why is this news? Because Cosby violated what I call "BPC," black political correctness.

We should not hang our dirty laundry out in public, according to BPC, especially in front of white folks--as if white folks didn't already know when our clothes are not clean.

Instead of being candid in our public self-appraisals, BPC tells us to sound like President Bush does on Iraq: If we've made any mistakes, we can't remember what they are.

Indeed, Cosby's press release of several days after the NAACP event hints at this too. Cosby says:

"I feel that I can no longer remain silent. If I have to make a choice between keeping quiet so that conservative media does not speak negatively or ringing the bell to galvanize those who want change in the lower economic community, then I choose to be a bell ringer."

He is obviously responding to criticism that he shouldn't be speaking out so critically -- lest his comments be praised by "conservative media."

Finally, today we have an op-ed in the Washington Post from one of the stone-faced NAACP leaders, Theodore Shaw (the director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.). He's apparently not too happy with Cosby's frank speech:

I knew, even before I reached the stage, that Cosby's comments would be hijacked by those who pretend that racism is no longer an issue and who view poor black people with disdain. So, departing from my own prepared remarks, I embraced the notion of personal responsibility, at the same time calling attention to problems faced by African Americans that are not self-inflicted.

One example is the now infamous Tulia, Tex., drug sting. With no drugs, no money and no weapons recovered, 10 percent of the black population of this small town was arrested and convicted on the word of one corrupt undercover police officer. The sentences ranged from 20 to 341 years. Only after the Legal Defense Fund and other lawyers represented these individuals in post-conviction proceedings were they released.

Predictably, conservatives are applauding Bill Cosby for saying that the problems of the black community stem primarily from personal failures and moral shortcomings. But just as we in the progressive African American community cannot countenance the demonization of poor people, we must not cede the issue of personal responsibility to ideological conservatives. Most poor black people struggle admirably to raise their children well. Parents, including single mothers, work for low wages, sometimes in multiple jobs, to support their families. Recently Cosby recognized this in a press statement in which he emphasized that he was not criticizing everyone in the "black lower economic classes" but intended to issue a "call to action" and to foster "a sense of shared responsibility and action."

Unlike much of the world, we ignore human rights protections against discrimination on the basis of economic status. As a nation, we wage war on poor people in this country, not on poverty. In many ways we are a nation struggling to maintain our moral compass. Violence and dysfunction in poor black communities are under an especially glaring spotlight. But many of the problems Cosby addressed are largely a function of concentrated poverty in black communities -- the legacy of centuries of governmental and private neglect and discrimination.

Cosby's observations about the senseless violence perpetrated within black communities are undeniable. I do not know anyone who does not condemn it. But Amadou Diallo, shot to death in a hail of 41 bullets by New York police, did not steal a poundcake. He and countless other innocent black people have been killed while unarmed in communities in which policing is driven almost entirely by a "war on drugs" that makes all residents presumptive targets.

Following a recent conversation, Cosby and I agreed on this much: To the extent that he is frustrated and angry about the failure of people to be responsible parents, and about senseless crime and violence, I stand with him; to the extent that we continue to be challenged by the systemic issues of race and racism that the Legal Defense Fund has confronted since the days of my predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, Bill Cosby stands with me.

There is no either/or for anyone who truly works in the interests of African Americans and our nation.

Make your own judgments as to what role personal responsibility plays in Shaw's view of the world. I've made mine.

UPDATE: Thomas Sowell:

Bill Cosby and the black "leadership" represent two long-standing differences about how to deal with the problems of the black community. The "leaders" are concerned with protecting the image of blacks, while Cosby is trying to protect the future of blacks, especially those of the younger generation.

Far from just bashing blacks, Cosby has given generously to promote black education. But he is still old-fashioned enough to think that others need to take some responsibility for using the opportunities that were gained for them by "people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education."

Now, in too many black communities, dedicating yourself to getting an education is called "acting white."

These are painful realities and they do not become any less real or any less painful by hushing them up. Nobody enjoys being made to look bad in public. But too many in the black community are preoccupied with how things will look to white people, with what in private life would be concern about "what will the neighbors think?"

When your children are dying, you don't worry about what the neighbors think. When the whole future of a race is jeopardized by self-destructive fads, you put public relations on the back burner.

Posted by Old Benjamin at 10:23 AM | Permalink


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