BOOK REVIEW ARTICLE

 

Urging Uplift for American Blacks: Two Recent Books—a Critique

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired

 

Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors

Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint

Thomas Nelson, 2007

 

Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It

Juan Williams

Three Rivers Press, 2006

 

            These books are addressed by black American authors to an intended black readership, urging blacks to adopt an ethos of self-improvement and achievement.  The authors see that a great many of their fellow blacks—though they correctly emphasize that it is by no means all—are caught in an underclass culture that is both degrading and destructive.  The Bill Cosby book (written with co-author Alvin Poussaint) is a follow-up on the amazingly candid, and accordingly highly controversial, speech that Cosby gave in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall on May 17, 2004, at the 50th anniversary gala celebrating the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that decreed an end to racial segregation in public schools.  For three years after that speech, Cosby held a series of “call-out meetings” for blacks in major cities across the United States.  In effect, this book is a capstone to that crusade, building on Cosby’s message and reporting many of the contributions made by others at the meetings.  (It is appropriate to call it a capstone, but we don’t mean to suggest that it marks a conclusion of Cosby’s efforts.)

            Oddly, Cosby and Poussaint add this capstone with only passing mention (in the bibliography) of Juan Williams’ book, which was published the year before, in 2006.  Williams’ purpose was directly related to Cosby’s: to bring together the various threads of Cosby’s campaign.  Enough was, as he says, “sparked” by Cosby’s speech, and picks up on the years of meetings and on what Cosby said to him personally when interviewed.   Though it would be presumptuous to think of the three authors as clones, since all are individuals in their own right, it is justified to think of the two books together as stating a common message. 

            Readers in the United States are no doubt well acquainted with Bill Cosby, who is one of the more beloved personalities in American entertainment.  Perhaps most notably, he played the father, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, in the fictitious Huxtable family, an upper-middle-class black family which, in the original TV series and the re-runs, has long set the gold-standard for decency, wholesome family life, and attainment for Americans of all colors.  But Cosby’s career has gone well beyond the Huxtable family, including the authorship of several highly successful books and national tours of folksy conversation before packed auditoriums.

            His co-author, Alvin F. Poussaint, who is also black and a “long-time collaborator,” is on board with him largely because Come On, People devotes much of its attention to the improvement of black parenting, an area of Poussaint’s expertise.  Poussaint is an M.D., a psychiatrist and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

            With Enough, journalist Juan Williams has added his sixth book of black history and commentary.  He has been a senior correspondent for National Public Radio and a political analyst for Fox News Sunday.  He served in an assortment of editorial roles with the Washington Post for twenty-one years.

           

The Widespread Presence of the Problems They Address

            Cosby says that “the trials of black people are at the core of Come On, People.  But the problems they face are similar to those of all poor and alienated groups, regardless of race.”

            This perception of the broader existence of the behavioral pathology is helpful, but we need to realize that it actually falls quite short.  Most proximately, we see that black hip-hop culture, pushed on a compliant public by mass media, has come to pervade daily life in much of the world.  Cosby is right when he says that “no group of people has had the impact on the culture of the whole world that African Americans have had.”  When he goes on to say that “much of that impact has been for the good,” he is making a judgment that a fair portion of the public obviously shares.  It brings to mind, though, Hamlet’s speech to the players in which he warns about acting that will “make the judicious grieve” and puts things in a proper perspective when Hamlet admonishes that “the censure [of this judicious person] must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.”  Today’s social ecology is besot by the slovenly, the orgiastic and the degraded.  Daily experience reminds us of this constantly.  It is there when a car next to ours at a traffic light pounds out an all-consuming rap beat, with the bass set to shake houses for hundreds of yards.   It is there when college baseball players are given the choice of what “music” they want the loudspeakers to play as they come to bat, and many of them (even though most are white) prefer blaring rock music or the infantile sing-song of rap lyrics.  It was there on the lanes next to me at the bowling alley yesterday when a group of young Chinese men wore their clothes “black style,” with their jeans slung low below their hips, the cloth bunching at the ankles, and with ten inches of underwear showing. 

            We recall, too, that Walter Laqueur, in his book The Last Days of Europe (reviewed in these pages in the Winter 2007 issue), pointed out that in Europe even the radical Islamists have lost control over Muslim youth, who have thrown themselves into “hip-hop culture and gangsta rap.”  He reported that, contrary to Islamic teachings,  “the younger generation has developed a subculture of their own that is expressed in their songs and language,” made up of the “rapping, misogynistic and homophobic, [which is] as ugly as their language, consisting mainly of expletives and curses, the lingo of the underworld….”

            When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia as the Soviet Union fell apart, he expressed his dismay over how the worst aspects of Western pop culture had been embraced by young Russians.  “Our young people,” he said, “are growing in the direction of mindless, barbaric emulation… of debased, degraded ‘mass pop-culture’….”

            Even this description of the spread of cultural pathology leaves us with an insufficient understanding of its scope.  The decline in aesthetic standards is a major feature of modern civilization, and goes far beyond the influence of black styles.  For well over a century, we have seen it in the art and music of the cognoscenti, dictated by the anti-bourgeois emanations of a profoundly alienated intelligentsia, emanations that have brought the nobility and sublimity of a Brahms, a Tchaikovsky and a Beethoven crashing to the ground.  To understand another major factor in the decline, it is helpful to read the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses, which some eighty years ago told how a central characteristic of modern life has been the vast expansion of the population of precisely the less-than-noble man, who Ortega said has come to permeate all spaces, imposing his spiritual limitations as he goes.

            It is important to point these things out because they constitute the soil in which the current weeds of mass culture flourish.  Why do the international corporate media promote gangsta rap?  And why do they find a public willing to receive it?  The answers lie in understanding the forces that have fashioned the present.

 

The Authors’ Description of Black Pathology

            The specifics of the pathology are similar to those pointed to by Debra Dickerson in her The End of Blackness (2004), which we reviewed in our Fall 2005 issue: 

            The chaos of family life.  The books tell us that in the United States 70 percent of black babies are born to unmarried women, and that “even when [black women] do get married, [they] have a divorce rate of 60 percent.”  Cosby/Poussaint (which to avoid pedantry we will refer to as just “Cosby”) describe the demoralizing physical and verbal abuse of black children.  And Williams reports that “one recent study found that about 50 percent of black fourth graders watch TV for five or more hours on a typical school day.”  Even in the eighth grade, 45 percent do so.  Come On, People tells how “we have seen parents bring children as young as five or six to R-rated movies filled with profanity, violence, and sex.” (But, unfortunately, even this is an understatement.  I went into a movie theatre in Junction City, Kansas, a few years ago only to find an audience of blacks watching a film where a young black woman was tied to a tree and a black man was cutting off her nipples with garden shears.  Children of all ages, even toddlers, ran around the aisles while the crowd whooped and cheered.)

            Cosby tells the story of a black police officer in New Jersey who caught some seven-year-olds smashing car windows.  When the officer took one of the boys home, “he walked up to the house with the boy.  The boy pulled the door open, and right there, a foot from the door, was his mother on the mattress having sex with a man.  The boy walked straight past them as if they weren’t even there….”

            Passing the pathology from generation to generation.  At one of Cosby’s “call-out” meetings, a woman said “I was alone, divorced, and poor with a house full of children when I realized I was in the exact same place as my mother when she was my age.”  Williams mentions the continuity when he quotes Cosby as speaking of “a culture that allows five generations to live in a housing project with no sense of shame.”

            It was almost a half-century ago that Claude Brown wrote his autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) that told of growing up as part of the depraved street culture in Harlem in the 1940s and ’50s.  His descriptions of that period mirror those given by our authors today. 

            Problems of mental and physical health.  We are told that “black boys are diagnosed with higher rates of mental disabilities and emotional problems than black girls, white girls, and white boys.”  A doctor speaking at a “call-out” meeting told how “African-American men live an average of 7.1 years fewer than white men.”  He gave statistics that explain why: “Forty percent of African-American men die prematurely from cardiovascular disease versus 21 percent of white men.  The rate of homicide death is six times greater.  The infant mortality rate is twice… One in four African-American women over fifty-five has diabetes.  The death rate for HIV/AIDS is seven times greater….”

            Precocious sexual activity; the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  Another doctor told how black girls “twelve, eleven, even younger, may be sexually active.”   Cosby says that “although African Americans comprise 13 percent of the American population, they represent about half of new HIV infections.”

            Slovenly appearance.  An informative tidbit reported by both books is that “the beltless, droopy-drawered look you see on the streets is a fashion straight out of prison” and that “the baggy pants…mimic the garb of black prisoners, who are forbidden to have belts.”  In his speech at the 50th anniversary gala, Cosby spoke of “people with their hats on backwards, pants down around the crack.”  In an interview with Williams, Cosby told how a college president described “how young black people dress when they first come to… school.  The young women dress like prostitutes and the young men come in looking like thugs….”  (Again, it is worth pointing out how ubiquitous these things have become.  If you go to any amusement park, you will see how the early-teen girls, black, white or Hispanic, are dressed, with tight low-slung jeans, bare midriffs, rings in their belly-buttons, and tattoos at the base of their spines.)

            The “black language” of ebonics.  Cosby takes a dim view of “so-called Black English” that makes the speaker sound “as if English were a second language.”  Frequent mention is made in the books, as in much black writing, of the “stereotypes” that whites form of blacks; but ebonics is a form of speech that makes it seem that the black street culture is seeking to make a caricature of itself.  The slovenly dress fits into that same caricature.

            Foreshortened time-frame.  When Cosby says that “these boys don’t really know what the word future means,” it brings to mind the insightful analysis of sociologist Edward Banfield in The Unheavenly City (1970) in which he saw that those who make up an underclass of the chronically poor have a different perception of time than more successful people do.  They think, he said, only in the present and give no thought to preparing for the future.   

            School failure.  Williams refers to a black researcher, John Ogbu, in Ohio, who “found that from kindergarten to high school, black students put relatively little effort into their schoolwork.  In fact, their level of effort went down steadily as they moved from elementary school to high school.”  It is no wonder, then, that Cosby is able to speak of “the high drop-out rate” and report that “black males are failing at alarming rates in the schools.”

            Joblessness.  We receive some indication of why so many black men are without jobs when Cosby admonishes black fathers to “teach their sons about the necessity of hard work and about the need to show up on time and stick to a job.”  The statistics Cosby cites are startling: “By the year 2000, after eight straight years of economic growth, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their twenties didn’t have regular employment.”  He adds that “by 2004, that percentage had increased to a preposterous 72 percent, almost four times more than among Hispanic dropouts.”  If this is true of the dropouts, what about the high school graduates?  He says that “even including high school graduates, half of black men in their twenties were jobless in 2004.”

            Rap culture.  White detective Mark Fuhrman was demolished on the witness stand in the O. J. Simpson murder trial for having used the word “nigger” ten years before.  It is a part of the self-made caricature that, as Cosby tells us, “gangsta rap” uses “nigga a thousand times a day every day.”   He says that “rappers, particularly gangsta rappers, have ushered in a hip, bold, profane, aggressive style.”  It is worth recalling that Barack Obama uses the term “house nigger” in his book Dreams From My Father.

            Black crime.  According to Cosby, homicide has for several decades been the principal cause of death for young black men (15 to 29).  This isn’t homicide committed against blacks by others: “Ninety-four percent of all black people who are murdered are murdered by other black people.”  He adds that about 16,000 murders are committed in the United States every year, and of these “more than half are committed by black men.”

            To place this in perspective, it is well to consider that the statistics compiled by the Tuskegee Institute about lynchings in the United States during the 87 years between 1882 and 1968 gave a total of 4,742, of which 1,297 were white and 3,445 black.   If spread evenly over the 87 years (which, of course, they weren’t, since lynching virtually died out by the end of the 1920s), this would amount to not quite 40 blacks per year. The rate of 8,000 murders per year committed by black men in the United States today makes the figure for black lynchings pale by comparison.  (The highly ideological literature on race relations makes frequent mention of the lynchings as indicative of American whites’ historic viciousness, however, while ignoring the overwhelmingly larger reality.)

            Murder isn’t the only crime.  Cosby speaks of “the epidemic of violence in our communities.”  It would be helpful to see the statistics about rapes, assaults, robberies, and the whole variety of non-violent crimes.  It is little wonder that “although black people make up just 12 percent of the general population,” Cosby reports that “they make up nearly 44 percent of the prison population.”

 

What the Authors Feel Blacks Should Do

            Admonishing improved behavior and parenting; its intellectual implications.    Cosby’s speech to the 50th anniversary gala initiated the process that has continued throughout the “call-out meetings” and each of the books we are discussing—one of admonishing the mainstream of his fellow blacks to improve their behavior in all of the aspects of the social pathology.  Even though he puts his main emphasis on familial values and the responsibilities of parenting, he doesn’t ignore the many other aspects.

            This raises some important, although by no means obvious, intellectual questions.  For some, the Cosby approach will be subject to the criticism that Karl Marx made of “non-scientific socialists.”  Marx denigrated them as “utopians” if they simply exhorted people to adopt socialism without explaining how gigantic social forces (which for Marx were forces of class struggle) would operate to bring it about.  Someone following in Marx’s footsteps might well say: “It is all very well to urge blacks to behave better, but it isn’t likely that masses of people will respond to mere admonishments; it is necessary, if there is to be any reality to it, to show how the forces within society will cause it to gravitate in the desired direction.”

            There is a seeming plausibility to this criticism, especially when it is noted that the pathologies persist, and even continue to expand on a worldwide stage, in defiance of the Cosby-Poussaint-Williams-Dickerson message.  It is hard, however, for those who do not claim to have a “scientific explanation of underlying forces” rationale such as Marx asserted that he had, to take the criticism as a very practical one, and to do more than simply acknowledge how hard it is to get people to improve just by urging them to do so.   

            Actually, there are more important issues raised by “admonishing people to improve.”  There has been a long-standing debate about human behavior that has a bearing.  To explain the debate, we need to examine the almost two-century-long difference between the Left and its opponents about what has sometimes been referred to as “the environmentalist assumption.”  (It is necessary to explain that this name originated in social thought well before the modern ecology movement, and has nothing to do with what we speak of as “environmentalism” today.  It refers, instead, to the context—i.e., the “environment”—in which individuals find themselves as they make decisions about life.)[1]  The “environmental assumption” refers to a central concept in the Left’s ideological perspective, which has been that many millions of people, even in an advanced civilization, are trapped deterministically by the pressures of life or of society—which is to say, by their “environment.”  This is logically prior to the Left’s exploitation theories, for which it serves as a foundation. 

            It may not be immediately apparent that “entrapment” and “exploitation” have much bearing on whether large numbers of blacks will respond to Cosby’s admonitions.  And in fact they don’t, at least directly.  But the debate over those concepts in social philosophy has brought to light three issues that do relate in a very significant way.  

            1.  Are individuals passive receptors?  Or are they active agents in their own right?  The first of these issues pertains to the amount of energy and self-starting motivation most people bring to life.  Is the individual a passive receptor, unable to move on his own volition?  The entrapment perspective tends to affirm that this is so.  Classical liberalism, on the other hand, has long asserted the opposite.  In their discussion of black behavior, Cosby and the others quite obviously differ from the Left’s perception of people.  They see no inevitability that blacks are lethargic and incapable of self-improvement.

            2.  Wanting a community ethic of responsible behavior.  The expectation that people are capable of being active in directing their own behavior has long been countered with the argument that “you are unrealistically expecting people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”  And this leads to the second and third issues.  The second has to do with whether a community consensus stating a moral imperative relating to an individual’s capability ought to be a part of each person’s social environment.  Those who oppose the supposition that individuals are inert are quick to point out that when someone “pulls on his own bootstraps” he is hardly doing it on his own.  Rather, a social consensus imbuing an ethic of self-reliance, responsibility, effort and initiative can precisely be a part of the individual’s social environment.  This consensus can be impressed upon the individual by his parents, school, church and peers, among others.  He doesn’t produce it, but is led by it to exercise his own faculties.  When the individual internalizes this ethic, it becomes a part of his motive-power, interplaying with and guiding his own personal energy.

            This is what is at stake in Cosby’s, et. al.’s, complaint about the post-1950s black leadership and intelligentsia.  Instead of joining in a moral/behavioral renaissance, impressing such an ethical consensus, the “official black leadership… simply ignored” Cosby after his speech, dropping him into a black hole.  Williams says “no offer to advance his message came from the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congressional Black Caucus, the churches, or the major black colleges and universities.”  Williams argues that “standing up to the issue [of “crime in black neighborhoods”] requires black leaders to condemn black criminals as sellouts who betray a long tradition….”  He quotes Cosby as saying “I’ve never once heard the NAACP say, ‘Let’s do something about this.’”  This moral vacuum extends beyond the “leaders” as such and includes the black intellectual culture.  Cosby says that “many of those who accuse us [of “picking on the poor”] are scholars and intellectuals, upset that we are not blaming everything on white people as they do.”

            There may be all sorts of reasons for this difference between Cosby and the black leadership/intelligentsia.  Matters of personality, racial conflict, turf-protection, and the like may play a role.  But with two centuries of ideological conflict as background, we can see that it is also a difference between the long-engrained worldview of the Left and its opponents over how much energy individuals bring to life and over whether there should be a socially enforced ethic of individual responsibility and achievement (which the Left has long denounced as a “bourgeois ethic”).

            3.  Whether the individual’s context is monolithic; and the desire for militancy in favor of multiple programs of assistance.  The third point in the dispute over the “environmentalist assumption” relates to the opposing perspectives of the effect of context on an individual.  The Left considers the person’s context (“environment”) monolithic, entrapping, overpowering.  Classical liberals, on the other hand, have seen the individual’s environment—especially in an advanced civilization—as pluralistic, rich in the diversity of its suggestions.  To them, the individual, especially if guided by the community’s ethic, can do a great deal to select his own environment, such as by taking a class or dropping into a library.

            As to this third point, we will see somewhat later in our discussion an interesting convergence (of sorts) of Left and Right as it applies to Cosby’s desire for black uplift.      Before examining that convergence, a side point is worth noticing: both Cosby and Williams touch bases with a classical liberal theme when they warn about counting on government as a way out of social pathology.  Williams says “there is agreement along racial lines that the poor remain too dependent on government.”  And Cosby cautions that “we saw what happened in New Orleans when people waited for the government to help.”  Just the same, without sensing any inconsistency, Cosby backs away from the classical liberal position when he calls for countless programs, mostly governmental, to help in all areas; and he even goes beyond that to praise and to implore an “activism” that will militate for the existing programs and many more.

            Cosby calls for aids external to the individual at almost all points in his book.  They include:

            . “Programs… to meet the special needs of black men and their roles as fathers…”        . “Constructive programs for ex-inmates…”

            . “Counseling, education, and job-training…”

            . “A women’s shelter, abuse hotline, social services agency…”

            . “Courses on parenting and child development in middle and high schools…”    . “Substance abuse clinics…”

            . “Pre-school and Head Start programs…”

            .  A “literacy program…”

            . “Tutoring in kindergarten…”

            . “Interventions” with potential school dropouts “all along the way…”

            . “Foster care…”

            . A “Jobs Corps run by the Department of Labor…”

            . Free care at public hospitals and clinics…

            . “Safe sex” and needle exchange programs…

            . Bereavement groups…

            . Food stamps…

            . Subsidized housing…

            . The Earned Income Tax Credit…

            . Debt counseling…

            . Food banks…

            . “We could envision a system in which those who come out of prison wanting help are sent to a local community college” [this without their first having finished high school, as we see when he says that “there, at least, they could finish their GEDs”[2]].  It is worth noting about this that Cosby has an odd lack of concern about what the program would do to the quality of the institution for everyone else who may want to use it.  Students who choose to attend the first two years of college less expensively at a community college before going on to a four-year university will be chagrined to read Cosby’s invitation to the illiterate, which will fundamentally affect the educational environment at the college: “If you can’t read—community college is waiting for you.”    

            The convergence between Left and Right mentioned above as to the “environmentalist assumption’s” third point arises this way: Innumerable outside interventions to help the individual certainly work to break down whatever “monolithic, inescapable” quality the person’s situation may have about it.  Although classical liberals feel the individual’s context in such a society is hardly monolithic even in the absence of those interventions and accordingly has little enthusiasm for extending governmental functions into a pervasive welfare state, the many modes of assistance to individuals do at least make the lack of a monolithic quality abundantly clear, and thereby reinforce the classical liberals’ point.  At the same time, those outside interventions, especially as conducted by government, fit in with the Left’s long-standing view that it is the “liberating function” of the state (or of a collective of some sort) to “free the individual from his entrapment and exploitation.”

            It may deserve special mention that in the course of discussing the implications of the environmentalist assumption, we have already noted Cosby’s implicit call for a radical reorientation of black leadership and his advocacy of multiple programs of assistance.  These deserve notice for their own sakes.

            Continuing the struggle against perceived American racism and classis.  It is to be supposed that most white Americans think of Bill Cosby and the others who endorse black uplift as, in effect, allies who support a common set of values.  They will be surprised to find, however, that the alliance goes only so far.  The books we are discussing go out of their way to dig a moat that is intended to separate their authors from white America. 

            They see the white population of the United States as profoundly “racist” and “classist.”  Accordingly, Cosby says “African Americans must never give up the struggle to eliminate the racism and classism in our society….”  Teachers and principals who try against all odds to maintain order within classrooms may find surprisingly perverse his reference to “racial profiling and discrimination against active, aggressive black boys by school personnel.”  Juan Williams says one of the reasons young black musicians are able to become rap stars is that they are “able to satisfy white America’s continuing desire to see Jim Crow jump in blackface minstrel shows.”  (Whatever may be true of white Americans’ desires along these lines, he rightly points out that it is “the white media structure” of “corporate America” that feeds off of and amplifies the perversions within black culture.)

            The denunciation of white America sometimes resorts to setting up straw men to knock down, as when Williams speaks of “the white racist stereotype of all blacks as criminals….” [emphasis added].

            The authors rarely, if ever, give credence to conservatives as anything but demagogic exploiters of race.  Williams writes of “opportunistic black conservatives,” and worries about “the chance that some white conservatives would hijack his [Cosby’s] message for their own purposes.”  He gives factual information about black crime, but then ascribes venal motives to those outside the black community who are disturbed about it: “White, conservative politicians realized they had a winning formula for any campaign by simply playing to white suburban anxiety about violent black criminals in the city.”  He cites Cosby’s decision to conduct his crusade even though it would likely cause “conservative media” to “speak negatively about blacks.” 

            In fact, the authors disavow any intention of entering into a dialogue with the white population.  (This is especially worth noting in the context of Barack Obama’s expressed desire to open a “conversation about race.”)   Describing Cosby’s campaign, Williams says “he wasn’t presenting himself to white people as the black man they could trust.”  Rather, Cosby “was telling home truths to his own people….” This disavowal of interracial dialogue is implicit, of course, in the view just mentioned that “conservatives” (who in underlying attitudes make up the preponderance of the American people) are capable only of abusing a discussion.

            Readers who recall our review of Debra Dickerson’s 2004 book will remember how she deliberately made a distinction between civilized values and white values so that she could urge blacks to adopt the former without acknowledging any relationship between those values and whites. 

            There is a temptation to suggest that the creation of a gulf between themselves and the white majority is obligatory for black writers such as Cosby, Williams and Dickerson.  One of the realities they face is that if they don’t, they are especially vulnerable to being called “Uncle Toms.”  But although a concern about this may well be a factor in fashioning their position, it would seem that their concepts go well beyond what is necessary for that purpose.  This suggests that their animus against whites is more than just the avoid criticism from other blacks.  As we will see, it is necessary if they are to avoid placing themselves at odds with the essential underpinning of post-World War II American racial ideology.

            An ideological imperative: that no tie must be made between black behavior and white reactions to blacks.  The most prominent manifestation of the animus that goes beyond what is necessary to avoid a charge of collusion with whites is their oft-repeated charge that any white negativity toward (or act of self-protection against) the black pathology is, in and of itself, “racist.”  Dickerson characterized as racist white women who instinctively clutch their purses or lock their car doors when young black men are near.  This charge of racism continues against whites even though, as Williams tells us, the same discomfiture as that felt by the white women was spoken of by black leader Jesse Jackson in 1993: “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life,” Jackson said, “than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery and then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”  Somehow, the anxiety is “racist” when felt by a white woman, but is just an expression of “torment in the black community over black-on-black crime” when felt by Jackson.  It would hardly seem that so obvious a double standard is called for to avoid being considered an “Uncle Tom.”

            This insistence that it is impermissible for whites to react to black pathology goes well beyond the purse-clutching and car-locking examples.  Despite all that he has to tell his readers about the extent of black crime, including 8,000 murders a year, Cosby is able to say that “crimes committed by black youth are overreported in the news” and that “these images reinforce stereotypes that lead to racial profiling by ordinary citizens as well as by police….”  We recall that Cosby gives considerable detail about slovenly dress, ridiculous language, and all the rest of the pathology.  This doesn’t prevent Williams from speaking of “stereotypes” and of “the racist characterization” of “them” [again a straw man since he speaks of the stereotype as being applied to “black people” in general] “as stupid, lazy, violent, and lacking in moral character.”

            During the past half-century, American law has made it unlawful in many aspects of life to “discriminate” against blacks, even if the discrimination is a response to black behavior.  Lenders and insurers are prohibited from “redlining,” even though prudence from a business standpoint would point toward not making loans or issuing insurance policies in burnt-out or crime-ridden areas of cities.  It is illegal to discriminate in the sale of a home even if it is accurate to anticipate that the sale to a black will in many cases (though of course not all) visit havoc upon the friends and neighbors whom the seller is leaving behind.   Such judgments about anticipated behavior are considered “stereotypes” rather than prudent judgments.   In imposing these prohibitions, the law has, of course, responded to the prevailing ideology.

            This brings us to a realization that is so stark that it is virtually unmentionable under today’s taboos .  Williams tells of how rappers portray “black women as sexually indiscriminate” and “young black men as thugs,” and then asks “who would hire such a person?  Who would want to live next to them?”  Here, he is awfully close to acknowledging that “discrimination” is rationally and morally justified by the very presence of the pathology.  But, no.  And the reason for the “no” is that such an acknowledgment would radically subvert the entire ideology of race that has so long been the conventional wisdom in the United States among blacks and whites alike.  Black behavior is never to be admitted as a cause of white aversion.  To accept that to even the slightest degree would be to change radically the moral calculus,  making everything gray instead of morally certain.  It would undercut the “moral high ground” that in so facile a way has swept all before it, for whites as well as blacks, in American race relations for over half a century.   The implications are mind-numbing.

 

The Changing Situation of American Blacks Since Before the Civil Rights Movement: Its Many Implications

            It should be thought-provoking that the authors describe the situation for black Americans before the post-World War II Civil Rights Movement as one that was developing along highly constructive lines and compare the situation afterwards in terms that are in some ways positive and in others quite disastrous.   If we accept their descriptions, it appears that the Civil Rights Movement was by no means an unmixed success.   The authors react to this by reaffirming a little-remarked but radical change that has occurred in the moral underpinnings of that movement.  Still further, the question becomes inescapable of whether the confrontational strategy adopted by that movement and pursued during the past sixty years has been the wisest course for the society in general and for blacks in particular.

            Here is what the authors have to say about the earlier situation:  Williams reports that “at the start of the twentieth century black people had higher marriage rates than whites” and that “in 1940 the out-of-wedlock birth rate for blacks was 19 percent.”  He goes on to say that “between 1880 and 1910, the percentage of black people who could read and write jumped from 30 percent to 70 percent.  This rapid rise in black literacy took place despite a lack of schools….”  To this, he adds that “if you ask any black person who got out of high school before 1954 about the quality of education they got in segregated high schools, they speak with pride about defying segregation with a high level of achievement in an environment of demanding black teachers.”  Cosby speaks of families and parenting: “The 1950s was a time when older people talked and young people listened.”  “In 1950, we still feared our parents and respected them.”  “In the era before welfare checks and food stamps and subsidized housing and Medicaid, families were strong too.  They had to be.”  These qualities were reinforced by the black church: “Historically, even churches were segregated, and that forced us to create our own vibrant spiritual centers….”

            As to the present, it shouldn’t be overlooked that it presents some significant good features.  Williams speaks of “the steady rise since the Brown decision in the number of college-educated black people, as well as the concurrent growth in incomes, home ownership, and black elected officials….”  He says that “today, half of all black families are middle-class.”   Cosby adds that since 1954 “black people have made tremendous strides in a relatively short period of time.”

            Nevertheless, looking at the negatives, Cosby exclaims that “they’ve got to wonder what the hell happened.”  He says that “the spirit of caring and self-help that sustained us for centuries is now largely a cultural memory.”  At one of Cosby’s “call-out meetings,” a former Kansas City police officer told how things deteriorated from the time he joined the police force in 1964: “I didn’t even carry a gun… But I would probably have three or four of them plus a bulletproof vest today.  But it was a different mentality….” Williams adds that “oddly, the increase in the black prison population begins around the time of the 1954 Brown decision.  At the start of the 1950s, 65 percent of all state and federal prisoners were white and 35 percent black… By the end of the century the percentage of white prisoners had declined to 35 percent, while the black inmate population approached 50 percent.  Something terrible had happened.”  The degeneration is brought home in personal terms when he mentions Rosa Parks, the heroine of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, and tells us that “the reality of Mrs. Parks’s final years included having her house in Detroit broken into by a young black man who robbed her of fifty-four dollars.”  Every detail of the pathology spelled out earlier in this review is relevant to this picture of the current scene.

            Interestingly, the authors react to the deterioration by pointing the way toward a renewal of black separation and self-reliance as desirable.  In doing this, they are reverting at least in part to what they have praised as the pre-1954 ethos.  Williams reports that “the biggest political movements of black people, before the Brown decision…, had self-determination as their hallmarks.”  Williams cites an example that highlights the mixed effects of the Civil Rights Movement when he quotes a black man who “saw young people carrying few books but doing a lot of cursing, fighting, pot-smoking, and even engaging in public sex acts,” and who asked “I wonder if Americans would have supported the goals of the civil rights movement if they’d known these children would be among its inheritors….?”  And Cosby echoes the pre-1954 situation when he asks “would predominantly black groups work better for black substance abusers?”

            It would be a mistake to think, however, that the authors are calling for a complete reversion to the separation of the races that preceded 1954.  In the long aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, the United States developed a functional set of double standards: minorities (such as blacks, other ethnic minorities, and women, who are for certain purposes considered a minority) are entitled to separate themselves into exclusive groups of their own as much as they wish.  We see this in black fraternities and sororities, black and women’s scholarship organizations, minorities’ professional associations and chambers of commerce, and the like.  At the same time, whites and men are prohibited from doing the same. 

            The Civil Rights Movement started with a high-moral-ground clarion call for a “colorblind society,” but that rapidly morphed into the system of double standards.  This occurred without so much as a murmur of reflection among America’s elite about how radically the principle had changed and about the implications of acknowledging that desired social objectives can justify differences in the treatment of groups of people.  It may surprise some that that acknowledgment is precisely what underlay the pre-1954 segregationist principle.  The difference was that at the earlier time the majority white population considered separation of the races a desirable objective.  (“Principles” have an important role to play in a good society, but it doesn’t take much of a study of history to discover how transitorily they are held to as people move from one “whose ox is gored?” scenario to another.)

            The disaster of black pathology as described by the authors should raise (but, given the tunnel vision of racial ideology, has not) the question of whether the post-World War II “civil rights” strategy of confrontation and of legally and ideologically mandated “fraternity” (to use the old French term) was the most beneficial course for the United States to have taken.  Has it served blacks themselves well?  Or the society in general?  The alternative to confrontation and legal mandates was a policy of patient evolution, which of course was intolerable to those of an activist bent.  As the authors have told us, the moral and intellectual condition of blacks was markedly improving.  If that continued, it is not difficult to suppose that over time the predominantly white population would have come to accept black equality as something just as natural as the acceptance of Asians as part of the mainstream is today.  If the aversion to black behavior had been eliminated by the blacks’ own energy and ethos of self-improvement, the well-being of Americans of all colors would predictably have been well served; the role of the state would have been much less; much injustice and hostility-causing friction would have been avoided; and the growth of the pathology would have been thwarted.

            The confrontational strategy was brought about by two forces.  One of these was the American Left’s seeking-out of new allies among disaffected minorities as the alienated intelligentsia’s earlier alliance with “the proletariat” waned (as it did throughout the world Left for a number of reasons after World War I).  As a consequence, American “liberalism,” as a subset of the Left, became sharply redirected toward “minority interests.”  The other force was the worldwide coming-into-their-own of “peoples of color” after World War II as the exhausted European empires were dissolved and, further, as the peoples of Europe and of European extraction lost their self-confidence and belief in themselves.

 

Other Issues Suggested by the Books

            Our analysis could go much farther, but it is just as well to make only brief mention of certain additional issues.

            The taboos on talking about race in the United States.  Williams says that “Cosby’s speech [to the 50th anniversary gala, dealt with]… issues that most black people, middle-class or poor, speak about only privately with other black people….”  This reminds us of one of the salient facts about American life today—the insisted-upon conformity of opinion to what “political correctness” demands.  Virtually all professional and “educated” Americans instinctively and instantaneously adhere to those demands.

            The importance of perspective.  One of the more important characteristics of virtually all social thought in the United States over a span of many decades has been its remarkable lack of historical perspective regarding the issues it discusses.  Feminist literature fails, for example, to realize that women “got the vote” within an historically very short period after most men did.  (England, say, didn’t install even “universal male suffrage” until the last third of the nineteenth century.)  Black literature has a similarly foreshortened perspective of the history of slavery, taking it from the time the slaves left Africa and not seeing that slavery was endemic to much African tribal life itself and that until the anti-slavery movement began in England in the late eighteenth century slavery had been an accepted feature of almost all societies over thousands of years (and was by no means limited to the enslavement of blacks).

            There is a considerable skewing of perspective, too, in the fact that black literature continues to place so much emphasis on the murder of Emmett Till and the deaths of the four girls in the church bombing, while cases such as Williams describes of black violence are almost instantly forgotten.  (He tells of a case in 2002 when a black mother testified against a neighborhood drug dealer, was subject to an unsuccessful firebombing attempt, and then was finally burned to death with her five children when “the drug dealer broke open the front door and took care in splashing gasoline on the lone staircase….”  Is it unreasonable to ask why these deaths are any less memorable than Emmett Till’s or the four girls’?  It is a fair bet that most Americans have never heard of them.)

            Continuing to ignore the studies of black intelligence.  There is reason to question whether it serves blacks well for black leaders and American social policy to continue the taboo against considering the many studies that show a significant deficit in black intelligence when its bell curve is compared with others’.  Cosby and Williams devote great attention to black pathology without bringing this into consideration.  If there is anything to those studies, which have been conducted by serious and well-meaning scholars, a failure to consider them is equivalent to proceeding in a way that is detached from reality.  There is no reason to suppose that a reality-bound understanding would preclude empathy; as best conceived, it would lend itself to a considerably more enlightened approach to a multitude of issues, and empathy could be applied to the facts as they really are.   

            An example would be that the “No Child Left Behind” federal educational program has been premised on the idea that all children are equally capable of excelling.  This, of course, is sheer fantasy, ideologically imposed.  Schools are punished, teachers blamed, and millions of dollars of extra expense mandated, if a given student population falls short of expectations.  It is all akin to “building a bridge to nowhere.”  It appears likely that the program will be abandoned after the 2008 elections in the United States, but that this will be done for a number of cited reasons that do not involve an admission that the central concept is faulty.

 

Conclusion

            The books we have been reviewing are well worth reading, but we hope that the content of this article has been such as to show how much informed, thoughtful reflection is needed. 

            



[1]   I have discussed “the environmentalist assumption” at much greater length in two of my books: Modern Social and Political Philosophies: Burkean Conservatism and Classical Liberalism, starting at page 162; and Socialist Thought, in Chapter 13.   Each of these may be found on my collected writings website: www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info

[2]   Readers in the United States will recognize the GED, but for others we should explain that it is a way for dropouts to get their high school equivalency by testing out.