Michael Eric Dyson and 'Is Bill Cosby Right?'

Ed Gordon speaks with author, minister and scholar Michael Eric Dyson about the effects of Bill Cosby's controversial remarks aimed at certain African-American communities. Dyson's new book is Is Bill Cosby Right: Or Has The Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

In the past half century, with the expansion of the black middle class, America's communities of color have begun to splinter along generational and class lines. Never have those lines been more critically exposed than when Bill Cosby made his now infamous comments at an NAACP event last year.

Dr. BILL COSBY (Entertainer): It's time for you to not accept this language that these people are speaking, which will take them nowhere. What the hell good is Brown vs. The Board of Education if nobody wants it?

GORDON: Author, minister and scholar Michael Eric Dyson uses Cosby's words as a jumping off point for his new book, "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" Dyson examines the growing intolerance that threatens to divide black America into have-nots and what he calls the have-gots. He suggests Cosby went wrong by laying blame at the feet of poor African-Americans.

Mr. MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Author/Minister/Scholar): I have no interest in romanticizing poor black people, having been one of them myself in our beloved hometown of Detroit. But what is equally intriguing is that Mr. Cosby has been made out to be a moral exception and a leader who has not come from the same stream of thinking as other black leaders. That's just not true. Every black leader from W.E.B. DuBois to Fredrick Douglass to Dorothy Height, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and on and on and on have seen the necessity of a twin approach. On the one hand, to talk about personal responsibility as the price we must pay, and on the other hand, we have to demand of the broader society that it remove all impediments that prevent us from flourishing.

GORDON: Let's take the same thought, though, to a different comedian, Mike. And in one of his classic stand-ups...

Mr. DYSON: I know where you're going.

GORDON: ...Chris Rock...

Mr. DYSON: Yeah.

GORDON: ...talked about that, `I love black folk, but I hate the N-word.'

Mr. DYSON: Right.

GORDON: And truth be told, when doors are closed and it's just us and let me air some of the dirty laundry, sometimes we will sit around and say, `You know how them peoples is.'

Mr. DYSON: No doubt. No doubt.

GORDON: There is a need to clean up some, if not much, of what is in our community. How do we go about that without blaming the victim?

Mr. DYSON: That's a very good point. And what you've raised here is the function of comedy. See, comedy is to force us to observe ourselves in ways that are humorous and yet at the end of the day, that cause us enough discomfort with the status quo to make a change. And so we ought to be self-critical. But I don't see the black middle class being self-critical. I see the black middle class being critical about the poor. The black poor can be critical about themselves, often, and also critical of the middle class.

The question is, can we use our resources to tell the truth as best we can about the moral deficiencies we have without reinforcing the victimization of poor black people? And I think there is a way to have that conversation. In fact, we've often had that conversation in black communities when we know it was appropriate for us to mercilessly point to the problems we possess. And you know what, Ed? If you go to any black church on any given Sunday, the likelihood is that you're going to hear some of that going on. We're not only talking about indicting white supremacy. We're talking about black capitulation to moral suffering.

And so I think it's important for us to find that middle ground and that the ability to be self-critical while not pretending that the dominant culture doesn't play a role. And this, by the way, Ed, is where I have another major bone of contention with Mr. Cosby. He dismisses or slights or minimizes the continuing impact of structural features of racial oppression, social injustice, economic inequality and the disparity in education between the black have-gots and the black have-nots. He says, `Yeah, it exists,' that is white supremacy or systemic racism, but he rushes on to talk about our responsibility. The best black leaders, intellectuals, thinkers and thought leaders have always known that it is both, and. And we do not do service to ourselves by easily reaching out to slap the most vulnerable as opposed to picking them up and enabling them to do better.

Jesse Jackson said, `When you're in a ditch, do you want a shovel or do you want a rope?' Mr. Cosby threw down a shovel to dig the poor deeper into the ground. I'm trying to lower a rope to help pull them up. Not me only, but all of us who are concerned, honestly and earnestly about the poor, should do the same.

GORDON: Mike, how do you bring to bear the idea that there will be those who suggest that the people that you and I both spend a lot of time with, the black intelligentsia, black leadership--critics will say aren't doing their job, because if they were, Cosby wouldn't be out there speaking about this, because someone else would be talking about it and taking care of it.

Mr. DYSON: First of all, black leaders like Jesse Jackson have even more bluntly than Bill Cosby spoken about the moral deficits of black America. Martin Luther King Jr. assailed black America for what he called the deficit of initiative, but he quickly added, as did Reverend Jackson, that even as we indict black moral failure within, we often understand that white folk will be hypocritical because they will never be honest about their moral failures. They will never take themselves to task about their ethical failures, but they will pile on when it comes to black people. And furthermore, many people have said that perhaps Italians going to an Italian situation, Jews going to a Jewish situation, Irish people going to an Irish situation celebrating the achievements of their ethnic groups wouldn't have what they argue is the self-hating impulse to castigate the vulnerable among their people in a fashion that the broader world could hear and therefore misuse.

So I think that the whiter world embrace Mr. Cosby as a moral hero and an ethical leader precisely because they want to not hear Jesse Jackson and figures like him who are saying, `Yes, we must clean up our act morally, but you, white America, must be held accountable and responsible for what you have done as well.'

GORDON: Let me as you this before we let you go, Mike. How do you stop--and is this part of the impetus of the book? How do you stop what is clearly a growing cultural divide within the African-American community?

Mr. DYSON: That's a great point. And, yes, the point of the book is to arrest that development, because I think it's a lethal one. And, look, there are huge divorces and divides and chasms in black America between the have-gots and the have-nots, between the monied and the poor, between the educated and the non-educated. And there are huge and growing chasms daily. And I want to say that it's not simply about generation. It's about genre. If you were attractive to thuggery in the 1920s, chances are you're going to be attractive to thuggery now. The same kind of black people who were griots...

GORDON: So Donald Goines is simply a gangster rapper today?

Mr. DYSON: That's all I'm saying. And if Donald Goines was here today, he'd been Snoop, he'd be Biggie, he'd be Tupac and so on. And James Baldwin is related today to a person like Nas or to writers who think critically about our condition like John Wideman. It depends on where you find them. The genre of black people is more important sometimes than the generation, because there's some younger people who can't stand hip-hop and some old people--we won't name their names--who are deeply into hip-hop. So the point is, let's not divide ourselves artificially before we begin to experience the possible unity that we can forge among ourselves.

But ultimately, Ed, the point of my book is to suggest that we who are responsible--and I'm sorry because I'm a Baptist preacher but--to whom much has been given, much is required. If Jesus had treated the poor like Mr. Cosby did, we wouldn't have a religion of Christianity that believed in redemption. We would have a scolding, cynical and divisive God who was intending to impose punishment upon the vulnerable. And I think for my money, I believe in a God of a second chance and a God of love and mercy, because I need so much more of it myself. And I'm sure, given Mr. Cosby's recent difficulties, he stands in the need of grace, mercy and forgiveness, too. So all of us should be much more humble and contrite when we point the finger at somebody else, because four more fingers are pointing back at us.

GORDON: Yet, Mike, what was right about what Cosby said? What do you agree with?

Mr. DYSON: I think, obviously, we don't want to be anti-intellectual in America. But you can't start with Snoop Dogg and Shanaynay(ph). You got to start with George Bush. George Bush ran a campaign where he bragged about being an anti-intellectual, dismissing his Harvard and Yale pedigree, pretending he was an American every day, ordinary everyman, and as a result of that, played up his fumbling speech because it signified that he was a good guy. That is deeply and profoundly anti-intellectual. I agree with Mr. Cosby that we need to be able to cold-switch in our language. We can holler at the pizza and the home boys when we're talking to them, on one hand, and on the another hand, if we're in corporate America, speak the appropriate language.

But, Mr. Cosby, wait a minute. You might be mad at people and say you can't talk like them. Oh, I deeply disagree. You may be one of the great ebonicist laureates of black America. You had a cartoon called "Fat Albert." That was a visual ebonics at the very least. And when, you know, Weird Harold and Dumb Donald and all those folks started speaking, `Umba gomba bebba'--this man has reaped millions of dollars of benefit from the black language practices of poor people, now only to turn around in forgetfulness and castigate them. I think that is deeply and profoundly wrong. So even when I agreed with the potential points he was making, the manner in which he made them undercut the moral authority of his criticism, therefore, raising the greater question: How can we enable people to stand up? How can we take our foots off of their necks and challenge them to rise as opposed to throwing them down and telling them they're nothing? And this is part of the culture of black America we don't want to talk about.

And let me end by saying this, Ed. We say we want to expose the dirty laundry and we want to tell the truth. Oh, no, we really don't. Black America doesn't want to tell the truth about black ministers in pulpits who are castigating gay people, who are themselves closeted gay and everybody knows it. Black America doesn't want to deal with the fact that there are many more men in America who are mad at Shanaynay for being named at but would love to sleep with her and seek ways to do so.

We don't want to put on the table the honesty about the brutal beating practices of black America. We claim we love our children. What's more anti-intellectual when your child asks you something and you say, `'Cause I told you so, and shut up,' and you beat them to within an inch of their lives. And then little Johnny, the white guy, gets chased around, but he's allowed to grow up with the feeling that the world is his and therefore he inherits the world because he feels he should have the world. We don't want to speak about all of the pathology of black America. We just want to talk about poor people's problems, and that's part of the difficulty. Let's move beyond the finger-pointing and find a way when we can be lovingly self-critical and lovingly honest about our deficits, even as we reinforce each other to become better in the process.

GORDON: The book is called "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?" Michael Eric Dyson is the author. And agree with him or not, man, you know what I love about you is you bring the passion.

Mr. DYSON: Thank you so much, brother. Well, you know, it takes one to know one, and thank you for having me on.

GORDON: Coming up on our roundtable, a Cuban exile puts President Bush in an uncomfortable position, and why the FDA wants to say no to some sperm donors.

This is NPR News.

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Is Bill Cosby Right?

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