Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on Bill Cosby is one of the most enlightening long-form pieces I’ve read in a while. It’s a subject that I obviously knew little about. Cosby was a self-parody by the time I became aware of him, doing fluff like Kids Say the Darndest Things; I’ve never seen I Spy or The Cosby Show, and I have only the faintest notion of his impact on pop culture. Moreover, his more recent activities aren’t aimed at me. 18-year-old white kids from towns with a 1.74% black population aren’t the people Cosby is telling to grow up. Maybe that’s the problem with his approach, but as it is, the Cosby gospel is told by a black man, for black men (and yes, it’s pretty clear he only means men).
Coates’ main thesis is that this targeting is revealing, not just of Cosby’s message, which isn’t exactly hidden, but of its place in the history of black American social movements. Cosby’s call for individual responsibility, Coates argues, is in line with the arguments of Washington and especially Garvey a century ago:
Garvey argued that blacks had rendered themselves unworthy of the white man’s respect. “The greatest stumbling block in the way of progress in the race has invariably come from within the race itself,” wrote Garvey. “The monkey wrench of destruction as thrown into the cog of Negro Progress, is not thrown so much by the outsider as by the very fellow who is in our fold, and who should be the first to grease the wheel of progress rather than seeking to impede.” Decades later, Malcolm X echoed that sentiment, faulting blacks for failing to take charge of their destinies. “The white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community,” Malcolm said. “But you will let anybody come in and take control of the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. No, you’re out of your mind.”
Those beliefs also animate Come On People, the manifesto that Cosby and Poussaint published last fall. Although it does not totally dismiss government programs, the book mostly advocates solutions from within as a cure for black America’s dismal vital statistics. “Once we find our bearings,” they write, “we can move forward, as we have always done, on the path from victims to victors.” Come On People is heavy on black pride (“no group of people has had the impact on the culture of the whole world that African Americans have had, and much of that impact has been for the good”), and heavier on the idea of the Great Fall—the theory, in this case, that post–Jim Crow blacks have lost touch with the cultural traditions that enabled them to persevere through centuries of oppression.
“For all the woes of segregation, there were some good things to come out of it,” Cosby and Poussaint write. “One was that it forced us to take care of ourselves. When restaurants, laundries, hotels, theaters, groceries, and clothing stores were segregated, black people opened and ran their own. Black life insurance companies and banks thrived, as well as black funeral homes … Such successes provided jobs and strength to black economic well-being. They also gave black people that gratifying sense of an interdependent community.” Although the authors take pains to put some distance between themselves and the Nation of Islam, they approvingly quote one of its ministers who spoke at a call-out in Compton, California: “I went to Koreatown today and I met with the Korean merchants,” the minister told the crowd. “I love them. You know why? They got a place called what? Koreatown. When I left them, I went to Chinatown. They got a place called what? Chinatown. Where is your town?”
Now, obviously this has some perverse appeal to conservatives who want nothing more than for blacks to keep amongst themselves, deal with their own problems and not force whites to own up to the institutional racism we perpetuate, and Coates speculates that Cosby could be the start of a movement of blacks to the Republican camp. But even to a electoral junkie like me, that’s not too interesting, or even relevant. The pervasive theme of Coates’ piece is that his politics, the politics of urban blacks or even American blacks generally, is not my politics. It’s not the politics that’s written about in The Politico or voted on nationally or represented in Congress. The politics I know doesn’t care about Cosby, or Cosby’s late son, or about basically any black family. Or, rather, when it does care, it seeks to destroy:
The rise of the organic black conservative tradition is also a response to America’s retreat from its second attempt at Reconstruction. Blacks have watched as the courts have weakened affirmative action, arguably the country’s greatest symbol of state-sponsored inclusion. They’ve seen a fraudulent war on drugs that, judging by the casualties, looks like a war on black people. They’ve seen themselves bandied about as playthings in the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan (with his 1980 invocation of states’ rights” in Mississippi), George Bush (Willie Horton), Bill Clinton (Sister Souljah), and George W. Bush (McCain’s fabled black love-child). They’ve seen the utter failures of school busing and housing desegregation, as well as the horrors of Katrina. The result is a broad distrust of government as the primary tool for black progress.
Now, you can argue with any of the examples Coates cites. You can say that Reagan’s visit wasn’t racially motivated, or that Sister Souljah was an extremist who needed rebuking, or that school busing did more harm than good. In some cases, busing in particular, you’d be right, on an abstract, policy-analysis level, at least. But that’s not really relevant. Even if busing failed by pushing whites to the suburbs and private schools, ending it sends a signal about which race’s preference matter to the government. Even if Reagan chose Philadelphia, MS for totally non-racial reasons, his insensitivity sent a signal about who he’d represent as president. Even if Bill Clinton was right on the merits, comparing a Public Enemy member to David Duke sent a signal about what he thought about black culture. Even if Bush’s failure in Katrina was more incompetence than racism, it sent a signal about what races the government cares about saving.
So, is Cosby right? Coates is skeptical:
Cosby is fond of saying that sacrifices of the ’60s weren’t made so that rappers and young people could repeatedly use the word nigger. But that’s exactly why they were made. After all, chief among all individual rights awarded Americans is the right to be mediocre, crass, and juvenile—in other words, the right to be human. But Cosby is aiming for something superhuman—twice as good, as the elders used to say—and his homily to a hazy black past seems like an effort to redeem something more than the present.
But the thing is, in a world in which both blacks and whites are allowed to be human, one still suffers far more. Coates is right, blacks shouldn’t have to be superhuman. But they do have a right to the kind of comfort in their humanity that whites enjoy. That they don’t have that comfort today isn’t their doing. It’s the white world’s. That’s where Cosby errs, fundamentally. There’s a variable behind the disparity between the races, and it’s a variable in which blacks have basically no say. DuBois got it right in 1903, and he gets it right today: until the establishment separating the races’ standing is integrated, the root causes of institutional racism, expressed in slavery, Jim Crow, or modern neglect, will remain.