How Long? Cosby, Brown And Racial Progress
Bill Cosby ruffled feathers, raised eyebrows and said a mouthful when, at a Howard University black-tie celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, he launched into a riff about “the lower economic people” not holding up their end of the bargain in the wake of Brown. “We can’t blame White people,” Cosby said, for an array of problems. “The issue,” he said, “is personal responsibility.”
While I attended the gala event and was charmed and mesmerized by the aging warriors who were lifted up, I left before Cosby took to the stage with his comments. But I’ve heard the taped comments and read transcriptions that other reporters have shared, and like many, I both cringed and shook my head in frustration. Everybody knows why I cringed — pundits have had a field day both attacking and defending Cosby. Everybody knows why I shake my head in frustration — most African Americans are frustrated by petty crime in our community, by the police brutality that comes with that petty crime, by parents who cannot seem to control their children. Some of us may have unleashed Cosby-like riffs, but in private and at more appropriate times. We are frustrated because 50 years after the Supreme Court said that our nation’s schools should desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” our schools are resegregating, racial economic differences remain persistent, and we don’t sense answers to the question — how long will this go on?
Cosby spoke truth, but he spoke it without context. He spoke about personal responsibility, but not public policy. He talked about the young man in an orange jumpsuit and asked where the parents were, but he didn’t answer the question. The young man’s female parent might have been working two or three jobs. She might have been in school herself. She might be struggling to keep a roof overhead in a neighborhood that is rapidly falling apart. It’s easy to blame parents of children gone wrong without examining the context in which parents raise children, the wages they are paid, the employment opportunities they have, and the malicious way that public policy has affected these parents and children.
Bill Cosby knows this better than most. He was raised poor in Philadelphia, and a track scholarship helped him to transcend his circumstances. With a foundation of tremendous success in show business, Cosby and his wife, Camille, have been extremely generous philanthropists, especially for African American institutions and historically Black colleges. The Cosby Center at Spelman College is but one tribute to their largesse; their work with the National Council of Negro Women is another. Cosby knows context, but he didn’t speak it on the evening of May 17 when he spoke about working-class Black people.
People squirmed because his words reflected the two Black Americas that hardly ever meet, of the long distance between a black-tie event and inner-city poverty. He referred to “these people” and “those people” at least half a dozen times in his comments, “these people,” not “my brothers and sisters.” In speaking of distance, he captured some of the ambivalence about race, progress and outcomes in our community.
Cosby is not the only person to speak to the ambivalence that comes 50 years after Brown. To be sure, the Brown decision was revolutionary, but it was marred by the exhortation for “deliberate speed.” Further, desegregation was a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for racial economic justice. Racial bias is alive and well, especially in economic areas. By any measurement, African American people have a long way to go before gaps are closed. There need to be both policy shifts and behavioral shifts to improve the quality of life among African Americans.
Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree offers sobering reflection in his book, All Deliberate Speed (W.W. Norton, 2004). He writes, “I see great disappointment in the effort to achieve a society of equality under the law, blindness to the harm that racial prejudice has caused African Americans, and refusal to address the problem with candor and conviction.” Those who ask “what problem” or assert a level-playing field are myopic if not simply blind. But our nation has such race fatigue that many are asking “how long” we must consider race-specific remedies like affirmative action. The Supreme Court answered in 2003, suggesting that affirmative action efforts might be unnecessary in 25 years.
In celebration both of Brown and of their 20th anniversary, the editors of Black Issues In Higher Education have released a thoughtful volume, The Unfinished Agenda of Brown v. Board of Education (John Wiley and Sons, 2004). It is a tapestry of reflections, history, multicultural perspectives and policy prescriptive. Cheryl Brown Henderson’s Afterword is a powerful schooling for our policy-makers. Henderson writes, “This country generally knows how to educate children. Our leadership has not had the political will to make it happen. … Until we make a blanket statement and equalize this antiquated system of school finance, we are always going to have underfunded, poor and failing schools.”
How long will we be stuck with educational and economic gaps? Simply, until we are willing to do something about it. Bill Cosby points out things that parents and individuals might do, while Ogletree and the Black Issues editors point to some policy shifts that have to take place. Fifty years after Brown, despite the best efforts of many, we are still moving with “all deliberate speed.”
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