Is Dyson Right?
In his new book, University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson takes Bill Cosby to task for his criticisms of the Black poor.
By Ronald Roach
Since the 1990s, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson has emerged as one of the most visible and widely read scholars on topics relating to African-American life and society. The Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, Dyson counts himself as one of many African-Americans who found comedian Bill Cosby’s May 17, 2004, tirade against the Black poor demeaning, misleading and destructive.
Ever the socially engaged public scholar, Dyson has recently authored Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, whose publication comes just one year after Cosby’s infamous speech. To produce Is Bill Cosby Right? Dyson interrupted work on a book on pride, which will be part of a series on the seven deadly sins to be published by Oxford University Press.
Since late spring, sales of Is Bill Cosby Right? have catapulted the Basic Civitas Books-published volume onto the best seller lists in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Dallas Morning News. Dyson reports that the book has gotten him the widest media exposure he’s ever received for one of his books. Other popular Dyson books include Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur and Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X.
In the current bestselling tome, Dyson analyzes Cosby’s speech and provides an assessment of the cultural and social obstacles confronting the Black poor in America. Black Issues talks to Dyson about how he envisions the controversy shedding more light than heat.
BI: Why did you deem it necessary to respond to the Bill Cosby comments with a full-length book?
MED: The reason I felt it was necessary to respond to Mr. Cosby is because I knew he wielded such a huge spotlight in the media-scape and furthermore his bully pulpit was of such inordinate influence that the poor would be squashed and quelled in their ability to respond to him in any significant way, especially those who disagreed with him. And so, I felt it was incumbent upon a person like me, who wanted to engage Mr. Cosby in dialogue, debate and conversation about these issues, to put forth an argument in the form of a book that would capture attention, present arguments, and distribute some facts and figures and statistics that were significant counterweights to his opinions and beliefs.
BI: How would you describe public reaction to Is Bill Cosby Right? compared with that of your other books?
MED: Well, my most popular book in terms of sales, of course, remains my book on Tupac Shakur, Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, especially among young people. However, this book has probably generated a wider range of response from the general public and Black communities than any other book. And it’s perhaps my most controversial book, arguably with the exception of I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.
But many Black people I knew would initially disagree with me in my arguments on Mr. Cosby because they had a version of the speech that basically in their minds had Cosby saying “Take care of your kids, stop being irresponsible, make sure that the community is cleaned up” and who could argue with that. But I knew Mr. Cosby had said something much more provocative and ultimately much more deleterious, and that he had framed his comments in such bitter and acrimonious disputes with the poor and vicious assaults upon them that I felt motivated to make arguments that would at least logically and rationally defend the poor, not uncritically and not romantically, while at the same time looking at some of the structural impediments and large obstacles that prevented Black poor people from flourishing.
But it was my job to tell the general public, especially Black people, what Mr. Cosby really said. And when I went around the country on my book tour exposing some of the other things he said that didn’t make the papers, such as “Pretty soon you’re going to have to have a DNA card in the ghetto to determine if you’re making love to your grandmother because she has a baby at 12, the baby has a baby at 14, she’s 26 years old — you (at 12) may be trying to have sex with your grandmother and a DNA card is necessary.” Those kinds of statements, which left people aghast, more accurately characterize the tone and tenor of Mr. Cosby’s assault than the few critical remarks that made it in the press.
BI: Your book places Cosby’s criticisms of the Black poor in the context of it being the latest episode in a century-long tradition of Black elites criticizing the Black masses. In your opinion, how thoroughly have historians and social scientists investigated and documented this history?
MED: Obviously, some historians like Kevin Gaines are quite aware of it because they have written brilliantly about it. And other scholars, of course, are aware of it and have referred to it. But the general public is not aware of this, and the scholarship that has been done on the notion of racial uplift in African-American communities has not bled much beyond academic borders. And so, as a result, there’s a huge disconnect between even the most able and intelligent of literate and educated African-American people in regards to the history of class warfare in Black America and those scholars who’ve devoted their lives to documenting the social and historical processes of Black culture.
And so partly, my book is an attempt to bridge that gulf and to shine a powerful spotlight upon the ongoing contretemps and warfare between the Black “have gots” and the Black “have nots” — or as I’ve phrased them in my book, the Afristocracy and the Ghettocracy. I think it’s extremely important to understand that Mr. Cosby’s comments are but the most recent update of an ongoing debate and the latest salvo in a century-and-a-half old war of the Black gifted, the Black fortunate, the Black blessed, the Black elite against those, at least financially and socially, far less blessed in their own struggles.
BI: Is there a significant difference between what’s happened recently and what happened in the distant past with regard to Black class conflict?
MED: I think the difference is technology in this case allowed us to glimpse more broadly the outlines and the anatomy of disgust and contempt that a Black elite, Mr. Cosby, has for the Black poor than in the past. Number one.
Number two. Those sorts of sentiments have rarely jumped the track of the Black public sphere and Black private conversations to derail completely in public the way Mr. Cosby’s comments have.
And thirdly, people have been rarely as venomous publicly in their views on the poor with the exception of right-wing conservatives, Black conservatives, neoconservatives who have vigorously assaulted the poor. But they have neither gained the visibility of a Mr. Cosby nor have they possessed his iconic status. So the combination of the timing, his prodigious cultural output, and his enormous cultural status along with the formidable command of the culture’s attention and his own desperately vicious assault on the poor have combined to make what he has said stand out.
But, you do recall that in an earlier generation it was one of the outstanding newspapers in America that said that the solution to the problems of Black America would be “five million funerals.” It was the Amsterdam News. The Chicago Defender had assaulted them with two cartoons — one of which was entitled “folks we can get along without” and later “folks we must live without.” They were a series of cartoons about the Black poor.
BI: Even though most Black poor are working hard, demonstrating more personal responsibility than they are given credit for and are law-abiding, isn’t there considerable strategic value in changing the perceptions Americans have of the Black poor so that making the case for tackling structural changes becomes easier?
MED: No doubt. Even though it’s a patently unfair perception, it takes more than the clear facts to make a case. That’s obvious because Mr. Cosby has completely ignored them and he’s within our community.
There is an argument to be made in engaging in perceptual warfare to put down, or to tamp down, some of these salvos being fired in this war that are full of misinformation. For instance, the belief the poor are lazy and don’t work; that the poor don’t have a desire to be educated; that the poor are fundamentally satisfied with their condition which is why they are poor, and basically they’re poor because they want to be poor — all that is just viciously misinformed. And what we have to do is combat it.
So yes, there is something to be said for the strategic change of that perception, which is in part what my book is aiming to do — to combat that colossal yet collective ignorance of the American public with a book that tries to make arguments that counter that ignorance.
BI: Although your book suggests more harm than good may result from Cosby’s comments, can you envision how this controversy could produce something in the way of a constructive dialogue about the Black poor in the U.S.?
MED: Well, I hope so through the writing of my book and the sparking of a conversation around a much more complex, sophisticated, nuanced, uplifting, edifying discussion of the poor. Not a romantic one, mind you, that exempts the poor from critique, but one that begins to place their behavior in a larger context of social struggle that examines why people are poor and how they remain poor. For instance, in my estimation, structural things like political influence and zoning laws and the geography of social identity are much more important than personal behavior in the maintenance and preservation of poverty.
BI: Why do you think Americans, particularly Whites, are so invested in believing that individualism is the basis of economic and social success?
MED: I think the myth of individualism is the foundational narrative of the American empire. It conveniently ignores how America as a nation acted to annex unfairly and unjustly territories, to usurp the rights and privileges of indigenous and First Nation peoples, and collectively engage in thievery and utter moral misery by stealing people from their homelands in Africa and forcing them into unpaid labor in America.
So the myth contradicts the reality. The reality is that America has been anything but self-sufficient and individually oriented. It’s been about the colonialist domination of and imperialistic exploitation of peoples of color around the globe, and especially in our own nation, as well as a remarkable fetish for group and collective identity constituting the basis for its exploitation and its actions rather than an acknowledgment of people’s individual identity. Slavery, after all, rested upon the belief that an entire group of people were morally flawed and racially inferior, and as a result [Americans] desired to hold these people in captivity.
BI: Are you getting the opportunity to appear on the shows hosted by the conservatives who have praised Cosby’s comments? Do you think you will be able to debate Cosby publicly?
MED: I’ve appeared on [Bill] O’Reilly, “Hannity & Colmes,” and the radio show of Sean Hannity and many other conservative [hosted shows] around the country on radio and television. So yes, I have. I welcome the opportunity to engage conservatives in principled debate about differences that we have. I don’t hesitate for a second to step into that arena and to engage in dialogue knowing that it will be hostile to my particular outlook. And yet I deem it an utter necessity to engage in such dialogue.
No, I don’t think that Mr. Cosby, unfortunately, will ever step to the plate and have a public discussion with me. Look, let’s be honest. Mr. Cosby’s genius is his comedic art form and I think that comedic art form and the genius upon which it rests is non-transferable in terms of Mr. Cosby’s social criticism.
I think [his social criticism] is flat, at times incoherent, at other times unintelligible and utterly devoid of the features one would want to see present in a social critic — broad vision, historical insight, historical perspective, deep and abiding engagement with other streams of information about one’s particular subject and an edifying desire to change the conditions and circumstances surrounding the problem one analyzes.
BI: In the early 1990s, the American news media seemed to pay close attention to and even celebrate Black public intellectuals. Do you think that’s the case today?
MED: Like any thing in Black America, we’re subjected to trends, fads and fashions. But I think any Black public intellectual worth his or her salt is determined to make an impact regardless of the prominence or visibility that may be attached to our thinking. And to move beyond the early ’90s engagement with the Black public intellectual — and I think it was a good thing to highlight, underscore and celebrate the achievements of Black public intellectuals, and there are legitimate critiques to be made. I made some of them in my own book, Race Rules, in an essay on Black public intellectuals. There’s enormous value in continuing as a public intellectual to engage the most thorny, knotty, gnarled problems of the public life of America and the social struggles of Black Americans with the insight, the intelligence of the best of our intellectual traditions.
BI: You’ve been quite successful with writing books for popular audiences, especially audiences interested in hip-hop and other aspects of contemporary culture. Do you ever worry that your success in this arena might invite the kind of institutional attack that led Dr. Cornel West to flee Harvard University?
MED: No. I long ago gave up the mythic investment in pure scholarship being concerned exclusively with issues that would only excite a few thousand people in the academy. I don’t give up on the notion of rigor or intellectual viability, or the critical acumen that should characterize any serious intellectual endeavor as a well-respected, well-regarded scholar. I think those critical criteria continue to regulate my work, but I’ve surrendered the belief that that kind of work must be put in broad opposition to work that is able to be read by intelligent readers who are interested in the subjects about which I write. I always want to challenge my readers to think deeply and profoundly about the issues I write about, but I don’t want to make it so inaccessible and obscured by jargon so as to render it unintelligible to even highly intelligent readers who happen to be outside the fields of endeavor that occupy my scholarship.
There’s something safe and sanctimonious about those cloistered academic environments. I didn’t get a Ph.D. to simply write for other scholars. I ultimately got a Ph.D. in order to render intellectual service to my people and to become the best scholar I could, and the most insightful intellectual I could for the nation at large. And so, my modus vivendi has always been driven by the ethical utility and the political usefulness as well as the academic integrity and the scholarly worth of what I should be about.
BI: If Americans accept responsibility in the plight of the Black poor, how do responsible people take on the self-destruction and
negative behaviors that devastate families and communities?
MED: What’s interesting is that Mr. Cosby certainly isn’t the first person to be exercised by the vicious consequences of Black behavior toward other Black people. Jesse Jackson has been consumed by such an endeavor for years in a public career that is remarkable both for its durability and for its adaptability to the issues that concern Black people — first, the civil rights and then a post-civil rights generation. There is just one example in Rev. Jackson of an engaged figure who is able to tell the truth about Black suffering and Black self-inflicted misery as well.
We’ve got to be quite sophisticated about understanding the relationship between poverty and the destructive behavior that we want to reduce and relieve. I think most people intuitively understand, but we’ve got to be much more systematically informed about this — that people who are poor behave similarly all around the globe, not just Black people who are poor behave this way. People who are poor, in general, behave this way.
And I think that’s the real challenge here, to figure out a way to allow people to live in such conditions that they are not victimized by their ethical vulnerabilities, but are rather enhanced by their moral possibilities. I think that’s the challenge for all of us.
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