Bill Cosby’s Confused Notions of 'Responsibility'
Bill Cosby has some nerve talking about “personal responsibility.” On May 17, with no warning, the 67-year-old multimillionaire comedian ambushed three venerable Black organizations—the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Howard University—fatally disrupting a gala celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown desegregation decision. Cosby drew from the hip (or the lip) to spray the hall with generalized insults against people who weren’t even there: the Black poor who, he said, “are not holding up their end in this deal.”
Apparently, Cosby thinks he is one of the deal-makers, and that he’s been cheated. The mostly Black, tuxedoed attendees at Washington’s Constitution Hall, forced to bear witness to Cosby’s tirade, were also to blame “in this deal” since they had collectively failed to sufficiently call the “lower economic people” to account for their “personal responsibility” deficits.
Not once did it occur to “Cos” that he owed his immediate and larger audience the benefit of a well-prepared presentation. Dr. Cosby saw no need to buttress his rant with a single reliable fact, nor to provide a coherent structure for his argument, so that reasonable people might arrive at some useful conclusions. Instead, he played the elderly “shock jock,” frothing and flailing away, spewing a sewer of abuse that, if directed against other ethnic groups, would be considered blood libels. (See a compilation of “Cosbyisms” at the end of this essay.)
The super-successful entertainer, famed for his practiced timing and flawless delivery, the evangelist of education—the discipline in which he received his Ph.D.—displayed an utter disrespect for his audience and for the august occasion of the anniversary. His extended outburst, presented without the evident benefit of even the most rudimentary preparation, was a gross violation of professional and personal discipline—an affront Cosby would never commit against a half-drunk nightclub crowd, much less the corporate and university audiences he regularly addresses. Yet he gave free rein to his inner demons in front of a throng of African-Americans at Constitution Hall on the anniversary of Brown.
The irresponsible icon
Icons always have apologists; Cosby has a media-full. Black people who should be insulted, instead make excuses for Cosby’s shameful, impulsive, totally uninhibited behavior that, in a non-icon, would invite suspicions of substance abuse.
USA Today’s Black columnist DeWayne Wickham—normally a smart fellow—sugarcoats Cosby’s bile as “talking black”–as if Black discussions of public policy, including subjects as momentous as the Fate of the Race, are by definition devoid of substance, structure, precision or logic. A similar exculpatory current runs through most corporate newspaper columns penned by Black writers in the wake of the Cosby abomination.
Amazingly, the out-of-control, grotesquely self-indulgent comedian was roundly praised for his “courage” in confronting the supposed Black phobia against “airing dirty linen” in public, i.e., within hearing distance of whites. How perverse and ironic! Much of the Black talking classes forgive Cosby’s clear lack of a sense of “personal responsibility” and elementary decorum, precisely because to do otherwise would risk diminishing a Black icon—in front of white people! Better to let Cosby’s insults to African-Americans, slide.
And since when was it an act of courage to badmouth poor Black people in America?
By simple standards of civility Cosby is guilty of an extreme lapse in “personal responsibility” by dint of his behavior to his audience and to the millions of people he slandered. More to the point, Cosby doesn’t know the meaning of the term—and neither do most of the Black chatterers who have been bandying it about.
Role Model mogul
What do the various political actors mean by “personal responsibility?” Certainly, we know that in the mouths of Republicans and their Black camp followers “personal responsibility” is a code for what people are told to exercise when the state refuses to see to the general welfare of its non-rich citizens. We know that song. But what does Cosby mean, and why are otherwise progressive Black writers and politicians bending over backwards to find ways to agree with him?
An enormous vacuity surrounds the Black discussion over Cosby’s remarks. People rush to say “yes” to a term, the definition of which is not necessarily shared or understood. Where does “personal responsibility” end and “social responsibility” begin? If a comedian turned demagogue can hector a substantial portion of a race of people to behave as he (vaguely) commands, then surely he is talking politics, not just giving advice to individuals. Cosby’s politics are in fact rooted on the conservative side of the Black spectrum—that is, when he is being coherent at all.
The Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page recalls:
Cosby was saying the same thing backstage when I interviewed him during my college days. It was 1968, but he didn’t want to talk about black power, Black Panthers or cultural revolutions. He wanted to complain about why so many young blacks of my generation were wasting the great opportunities that hard-won civil rights victories had brought us. In those politically polarized times, I was disappointed by his traditionalist attitude. But I appreciate its wisdom today with new eyes, the eyes of a parent.
Actually, Page appreciates Cosby with the “new” eyes of a highly paid corporate journalist who finds enough common ground with white conservatives to appear regularly on shows like The McLaughlin Group.
Thirty-two years later, Cosby was still urging young people on campus to be politically passive. At Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in May, 2000, he warned students:
Those of you going to grad school, listen to me carefully. … I know you have an idea of how you want to make a change in the world. That is not what grad school is for. Do what they tell you to do and then when you graduate, do what you want to do. That is what grad school is for. If you’re gonna argue with the professor, you’re going to not get a good grade, you’re not going to graduate in grad school. Okay? So take your young idea, study what they want you to study, kick tail and then when you get your turn to write your dissertation then you tell it the way it ought to be told.
“It is not for you to stand up and argue. … You get an A on all the tests and then, make your move.
By that, Cosby meant, make your personal career move. Don’t dabble in campus politics, or challenge the orthodoxy of those in power at the institution. Shut up.
Because of men and women who shared Cosby’s worldview, many Black college campuses were relatively quiet during the Civil Rights Movement, a silence enforced by Black administrators who did not hesitate to expel students and fire faculty who sought any change whatsoever in the status quo, on or off campus. Later in the Sixties, Blacks on white college campuses tended to be significantly more activist than students at traditionally Black schools, largely because they were not smothered by a “tradition” hostile to mass Black political activity.
Cosby advocates a neutered Black politics of individual striving within the parameters that are allowed by those in power. He projects his own, self-invented persona as a “role model” for African-Americans to follow as individuals, while rejecting collective action to alter power relationships. His message: Each of you people should do as I did. Cosby’s method is derived from a long line of accommodationist Negro leaders whose message was the equivalent of, “Eat your Jell-O.”
Ironically, the young Cosby did not follow traditionalist counsel. He dropped out of college to pursue the wildly perilous career of Black standup comedian in a largely segregated America. Had he failed as a comic—as the odds overwhelmingly dictated—without a good education he might not have been able to buy his mother a fine house far from the projects where he grew up. Luckily, Cosby the dropout didn’t listen to people like—Cosby.
Spurned, vengeful benefactor
Cosby bucked the odds, but never the system. His job was to become a Role Model for a Black presence within the existing order. Once that was accomplished, he added a make-believe family to the Model: the Huxtables. Writer Khalil Tian Shahyd “wasn’t surprised at all” at the tone of Cosby’s Constitution Hall remarks:
After all, for more than a decade he presented us every Thursday with what he thought the ideal African-American family should look like. That we should listen to jazz, and have people like BB King come into our home for dinner and invite us to sit front row at his shows. Take weekend trips by limo to the most expensive hotel in the city for dinner and pampering just to treat our partners to a day without the children. Live in a big house with not one neighbor of color, where our children shave their heads to appear in a skin head rock video and are sheltered from the real world of zero sum politics, gentrification, under-funded and abandoned school districts, swelling prison populations, racial profiling, economic marginalization, domestic abuse and all those specifically “poverty based social ills.”
In addition to making Cosby a lot richer, the TV show proved that a Black-cast show could hold white people’s attention in prime time for multiple seasons. This was considered a great victory. The ideal Black Role Model—Cosby himself, or the self he created—was now the entire nation’s Role Model for Black people. Heady stuff.
Role Model Politics is nearly as emotion-laden as cult-of-personality politics—and just as divorced from reality. The Role Model is, by definition, the template of righteousness and progress. Those who fail to follow the Role Model’s path are rejecting the Model’s persona. No wonder Cosby goes ballistic at poor Black people’s behavior—or what he imagines that behavior to be. He takes it personally. It’s as if “those people” are all playing the “dozens” at his expense. How else to explain the explosive vitriol of Cosby’s Constitution Hall performance?
However, Cosby’s inability to perceive that he is obligated as a matter of “personal responsibility” to atone for his blanket verbal assaults, is his personal problem. It is far more worrisome that so many Black opinion molders harbor similar attitudes toward politics and the poor. Cosby showed his ass, but the same ill winds are blowing through the spaces in lots of Black skulls in high places. Deep down, they value other Black people little, and trust them less. They would rather celebrate virtual social mobility (the “Huxtables”) than fight for the material resources that bring the possibility of dignity to millions. They see more virtue in a millionaire parting with a fraction of his money—although never enough to risk falling out of wealth—than in the selfless work of thousands of community organizers and activists who are motivated by a sense of both personal and social responsibility.
Dr. King and Malcolm X and Fred Hampton died in a social struggle to empower Black people. Cosby demonizes these same people, employing the enemy’s language, like some vengeful, spurned benefactor. Yet much of Black media pretend not to see the throbbing ugliness in their icon, thus calling into question their own fitness. In the face of a brazen assault on the human dignity of African-Americans, they equivocate—or join in the mass lynching. Mimicking racists, they impose yet another burden on the already super-disadvantaged Black poor. As Paul Street wrote in the April 8 issue of The Black Commentator:
The harsh material and structural-racist reality of American society interacts with timeworn, victim-blaming ruling-class explanations of poverty to play an ugly game on the nation’s most truly disadvantaged. They are expected to magically leap beyond their social-historical circumstances—to exercise an inordinately high degree of sound personal responsibility just to keep their heads above water—while others are structurally empowered to “pass Go and collect $2 million” without such exercise, and indeed to deepen the well of black disadvantage.
If huge numbers of Black people could be drawn together to figure out precisely how we have failed each other, that would be one helluva “social responsibility” conversation. But the Bill Cosbys of the community cannot be allowed to hog the microphone, just because they may have paid for it. As journalist-educator-lawyer-activist Lizz Brown says, “That doesn’t give him license.”
In truth, we can’t afford Bill Cosby anymore. He costs more than he gives.
Cosby on the Black poor:
“Lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids—$500 sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.’ “
Cosby on Black youth culture:
“People putting their clothes on backward: Isn’t that a sign of something gone wrong? … People with their hats on backward, pants down around the crack, isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? Isn’t it a sign of something when she has her dress all the way up to the crack and got all type of needles [piercings] going through her body? What part of Africa did this come from? Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damn thing about Africa.”
Cosby on civil rights:
“Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. We have got to take the neighborhood back. We have to go in there—forget about telling your child to go into the Peace Corps—it is right around the corner. They are standing on the corner and they can’t speak English.”
Cosby on literacy:
“Basketball players—multimillionaires—can’t write a paragraph. Football players—multimillionaires—can’t read. Yes, multimillionaires. Well, Brown versus Board of Education: Where are we today? They paved the way, but what did we do with it? That white man, he’s laughing. He’s got to be laughing: 50 percent drop out, the rest of them are in prison.”
Cosby on poor Black women:
“Five, six children—same woman—eight, 10 different husbands or whatever. Pretty soon you are going to have DNA cards to tell who you are making love to. You don’t know who this is. It might be your grandmother. I am telling you, they’re young enough! Hey, you have a baby when you are 12; your baby turns 13 and has a baby. How old are you? Huh? Grandmother! By the time you are 12 you can have sex with your grandmother, you keep those numbers coming. I’m just predicting.”
Cosby on the sons and daughters of poor, Black, unmarried mothers:
“… with names like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed [!] and all of that crap, and all of them are in jail.”
Cosby on Blacks shot by police:
“These are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, [saying] ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
Glen Ford is the executive editor of Black Agenda Report. He can be contacted at [email protected].