Article from The Atlantic Monthly
This is an article from a Cosby critic who has come around to his message.
“My problem,” Cosby told the audience, “is I’m tired of losing to white people. When I say I don’t care about white people, I mean let them say what they want to say. What can they say to me that’s worse than what their grandfather said?”
Cosby had come to Detroit aiming to grab the city’s black men by their collars and shake them out of the torpor that has left so many of them—like so many of their peers across the country—undereducated, over-incarcerated, and underrepresented in the ranks of active fathers. No women were in the audience. No reporters were allowed, for fear that their presence might frighten off fathers behind on their child-support payments. But I was there, trading on race, gender, and a promise not to interview any of the allegedly skittish participants.
“Men, if you want to win, we can win,” Cosby said. “We are not a pitiful race of people. We are a bright race, who can move with the best. But we are in a new time, where people are behaving in abnormal ways and calling it normal … When they used to come into our neighborhoods, we put the kids in the basement, grabbed a rifle, and said, ‘By any means necessary.’
Black America does not entirely share the euphoria, though. The civil-rights generation is exiting the American stage—not in a haze of nostalgia but in a cloud of gloom, troubled by the persistence of racism, the apparent weaknesses of the generation following in its wake, and the seeming indifference of much of the country to black America’s fate. In that climate, Cosby’s gospel of discipline, moral reform, and self-reliance offers a way out—a promise that one need not cure America of its original sin in order to succeed. Racism may not be extinguished, but it can be beaten.
The split between Cosby and critics such as Dyson mirrors not only America’s broader conservative/liberal split but black America’s own historic intellectual divide. Cosby’s most obvious antecedent is Booker T. Washington. At the turn of the 20th century, Washington married a defense of the white South with a call for black self-reliance and became the most prominent black leader of his day. He argued that southern whites should be given time to adjust to emancipation; in the meantime, blacks should advance themselves not by voting and running for office but by working, and ultimately owning, the land.
W. E. B. Du Bois, the integrationist model for the Dysons of our day, saw Washington as an apologist for white racism and thought that his willingness to sacrifice the black vote was heretical. History ultimately rendered half of Washington’s argument moot. His famous Atlanta Compromise—in which he endorsed segregation as a temporary means of making peace with southerners—was answered by lynchings, land theft, and general racial terrorism. But Washington’s appeal to black self-sufficiency endured.
After Washington’s death, in 1915, the black conservative tradition he had fathered found a permanent and natural home in the emerging ideology of Black Nationalism. Marcus Garvey, its patron saint, turned the Atlanta Compromise on its head, implicitly endorsing segregation not as an olive branch to whites but as a statement of black supremacy. Black Nationalists scorned the Du Boisian integrationists as stooges or traitors, content to beg for help from people who hated them.
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.”
Black conservatives like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, have at times allied themselves with black liberals. But in general, they have upheld a core of beliefs laid out by Garvey almost a century ago: a skepticism of (white) government as a mediating force in the “Negro problem,” a strong belief in the singular will of black people, and a fixation on a supposedly glorious black past.