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Bill Cosby’s Brown Blues

Bill Cosby’s Brown Blues
By Pansye S. Atkinson

Bill Cosby’s public remarks regarding his perception of conditions in the African American community are but one manifestation of Brown blues in the Black community.

I first heard Cosby voice concerns about deteriorating conditions in the Black community in December 2003, at a gala held for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Cosby’s mounting frustration then spilled over into his more recent comments in Washington and Chicago. Given his high profile, Cosby has made front page an issue that has for decades dominated African American discussions, but primarily behind closed doors.

As an educator whose experience spans segregated and desegregated school settings, I have pondered the decline of self-knowledge, self-love and the sense of community for many African Americans from all socioeconomic backgrounds. My observations have led me to focus on the 1954 Brown decision as a point of reference.

First, the Brown decision was definitely the right decision. The segregation of citizens based on race is unconstitutional; that fact was stated in the Supreme Court’s decision and standing alone would have justified the decision. However, the infamous “doll studies” testimony presented by social scientists on behalf of the plaintiffs, which was based on the research of African American psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark, apparently strongly influenced the  ruling.

This research concluded that African American children showed signs of inferiority and low self-esteem, both in segregated schools in the South and in predominately White schools in the North. Although the actual skin color of each Black child may have influenced choices, the subjects of the studies in the South, by a significantly higher percentage, identified with “colored” dolls; and those in the North identified, by a significantly higher percentage, with White dolls.

Although soundly criticized by some, the conclusions of the doll studies probably helped seal a unanimous decision in favor of the plaintiffs, but also helped to fortify the image of “Negro” self-hatred. And perhaps, for many White Americans, more “scientific” proof of the low self-esteem of Black Americans provided the shelter of assurance of White superiority and the reluctant willingness to have Black children in their schools — and to devise programs to uplift the “disadvantaged” or “culturally deprived.”

Most importantly, the joy of the Brown victory shrouded realization that without carefully studied planning, the implementation of Brown would result in a sudden, dramatic change in the education and socialization of African American children.

With the implementation of Brown, many children have been placed in hostile environments, where their academic and personal welfare is at risk. Educators may have had good intentions, but some have been unwilling and or unprepared to work effectively with a population unfamiliar to them. As a result, these children are left unable to read, write and calculate adequately — or speak the “king’s” English, as Cosby says.

African American children have been increasingly placed in either a cookie-crusher or a cookie-cutter environment. Educated away from their culture and heritage, and rejected by the dominant culture, many align themselves with a culture of alienation, as societal cast asides. Others become more like Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks — often with an armor-like façade of self-confidence and accomplishment, bent on destroying their own kind.

Education has always been at the center of African American aspirations, and the philosophy of education as stated in the Brown decision has been internalized: “…Education as provided by state and local governments is the very foundation of good citizenship.” Further, education “is the principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.”  

To function in this society, Black children, of course, need a proper education. In addition, they must be educated about their history, culture and value systems. The educational system also must take into consideration the learning styles of African American children.

It is past time for African Americans, indeed our whole society, to confront and combat the Brown blues. We must work toward a system of equal, fair and relevant education for all Americans. Bill Cosby has provided the prologue. The African American community must now produce and direct this drama. The first act must identify the insidious root(s) of the problem. 

Atkinson is director of affirmative action/equal employment opportunity at Frostburg State University in Maryland and author of Brown vs. Topeka: Desegregation and Miseducation.

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