Cast your mind back about ten years or so to a series of speeches that got Bill Cosby in a lot of trouble, especially his 2004 speech to the NAACP Awards dinner. The Cos took aim at dysfunctions in the black community . . . and he was slammed for “blaming the victim” and taking focus away from white racism. Here’s an extended excerpt:
Ladies and gentlemen, I really have to ask you to seriously consider what you’ve heard, and now this is the end of the evening so to speak. I heard a prize fight manager say to his fellow who was losing badly, “David, listen to me. It’s not what’s he’s doing to you. It’s what you’re not doing. (laughter).
Ladies and gentlemen, these people set, they opened the doors, they gave us the right, and today, ladies and gentlemen, in our cities and public schools we have fifty percent drop out. In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. (clapping) No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.
Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal. In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. In the old days, you couldn’t hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had one and where you got it from. Parents don’t know that today.
I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? And where is his father, and why don’t you know where he is? And why doesn’t the father show up to talk to this boy?
The Atlanticsummed up the backlash:
The playwright August Wilson commented, “A billionaire attacking poor people for being poor. Bill Cosby is a clown. What do you expect?” One of the gala’s hosts, Ted Shaw, the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, called his comments “a harsh attack on poor black people in particular.” Dubbing Cosby an “Afristocrat in Winter,” the Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson came out with a book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, that took issue with Cosby’s bleak assessment of black progress and belittled his transformation from vanilla humorist to social critic and moral arbiter. “While Cosby took full advantage of the civil rights struggle,” argued Dyson, “he resolutely denied it a seat at his artistic table.”
Cosby dutifully shut up after this. So it is with considerable irony that I note both Obamas, in commencement speeches over the weekend, gingerly revisited some of the themes Cosby endorsed. Here’s Michelle Obama at Bowie State on Saturday:
And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that.
Actually I’m not sure how often her husband does say that, but I know that early on in Obama’s presidency I and many others suggested that if he really wanted to make a mark as president, he and Michelle would engage a sustained campaign, along the lines of Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign, to affect the status of the black family in America. President Obama came close to Cosby territory in his commencement speech yesterdayat Morehouse College, Martin Luther King Jr’s alma mater. A lot of the speech was boilerplate liberal rot as you’d expect, but there was this:
We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. . .
Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.
You now hail from a lineage and legacy of immeasurably strong men — men who bore tremendous burdens and still laid the stones for the path on which we now walk. You wear the mantle of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, and Ralph Bunche and Langston Hughes, and George Washington Carver and Ralph Abernathy and Thurgood Marshall, and, yes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
These men were many things to many people. And they knew full well the role that racism played in their lives. But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had no time for excuses.
I wonder whether Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington are really taught well at Morehouse (or at any university these days), and I wish Obama would do more of this kind of thing. But this is a good start.