Bill Cosby, the NAACP, and Playing to Win

Last week, Bill Cosby stood before the NAACP and said that the problems facing African-Americans today were largely self-inflicted, a cycle of shirking personal responsibility by laying the blame on everybody else except themselves. The NAACP’s response was that the problems facing African-Americans today were still largely outside-inflicted, a cycle of oppressive systemic practices that left no positive avenues for the poor members of the African-American community to get ahead in society. I see what Bill Cosby said, what the NAACP replied, and I can see both sides. Teaching at an Historically Black College/University (an “HBCU” in academic circles), many of my students *are* what Bill Cosby and the NAACP are talking about. Yes, many of my students’ backgrounds and present lives are filled with “drama” — poverty, crime, violence, and deaths that take my breath away when I hear of them. And, for some of them, that “drama” is so overwhelming that they never survive the first year of college, as it pulls them back. But what I found galling is that they never realized that this “drama” was pulling them back, as they are so accustomed to this way of life. They would drop out, without prior warning, to take care of “business” caused by the “drama” in their life, and then, when they return, they are angry because their classes and fellow students have gone on without them and their teachers won’t give them extra time to make up for the time missed, and so they cry “Unfair!” and blame the very avenue — school and mainstream society — that is supposed to help them escape this vicious cycle of “drama.” Yes, the problems facing the poor of the African-American community is real, but African-American community does not corner the market of the problems of the poor. As Jesus said in the Gospels (MT 26:11), “The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me.” The poor of Appalachia, the poor of the Mexican migrant workers, the poor of the fresh-off-the-boat Asian who can’t speak a lick of English — these people face the same overwhelming odds of achieving the American Dream as anybody else. Yes, their ancestors were not black slaves of an unjust system 100 years ago, but the US have been making up for that blight on Jefferson’s dream of what America stands for ever since. When one thinks of racial injustice nowadays, “black” vs. “white” is what comes up. But, as Bill Cosby pointed out, racial injustice isn’t the real issue anymore — that’s actually a red herring. The real issue is economic injustice, and the more the African-American poor confuses racial injustice and economic injustice, the less likely the African-American poor will be able to climb out of poverty and into the middle-class. The first step in solving a problem is being able to define what the problem is. I don’t have any magic bullet solutions to economic injustice — that’s a gigantic issue that people more knowledgeable than I am have cussed and discussed — but at least we must not confuse the symptoms of a problem for the problem itself, not confuse effects and causes. Bill Cosby has suggested that scapegoating African-American poor take personal responsibility for the “drama” in their lives, and I agree with him, 100%. Life sucks for many African-American poor, but life sucks for *any* person who is poor, irrespective of ethnicity. But I also believe one must solve the problem of *why* certain members of the poor — African-American and others — believe that scapegoating is not only the first choice but the socially *acceptable* choice, and, in some cases, the *only* choice in remedying their problems. Wallowing in self-pity feels good, for a time; but after that’s past, the only persons who’ll save oneself are oneself and God. Everything else is gravy.

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