NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Last May, Bill Cosby hurled an explosive idea into the African-American community. Whether it was a lightning bolt or a hand grenade depends on who you ask. The scene was a Washington, DC, gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education. Before an audience of accomplished civil rights leaders, Cosby delivered a scathing attack on the subculture of black poverty, in which he blamed black parents for the poor performance of their children.
A year later, people are still talking, still debating who bears responsibility for problems in black communities. Many applaud Cosby for having the courage to tell it like it is. He's also been derided as a traitor to his own people. Last July, Bill Cosby appeared on this program and explained what was going through his head on that evening, when the focus was on the fight to end desegregation.
(Soundbite of previous program)
Dr. WILLIAM H. COSBY: And so we're talking about educated people going up against educated people on the Board of Ed, Topeka, Kansas, winning with their brains. And then, 50 years later, in Washington, DC, I'm looking at, in the lower economic area, a 50 percent dropout of the African-American male from high school. I'm looking at 65 percent of the incarcerated African-American male illiterate. I'm looking at 70 percent of teen-age pregnancy--the African-American female. And I'm realizing that there's a great deal of racism. We take that--we all know that. But then again, there's a time when we have to turn around the mirror and look at ourselves.
CONAN: Now a new book challenges Cosby's conclusions. It's called "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" Michael Eric Dyson is the author and will join us in just a minute.
But first we want to pose this question to you: Did Bill Cosby's comments spark fresh discussion about race and race relations where you live? Did he challenge your own thinking in some way? We'd like to hear about it. The number here is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
A little bit later in the program, why Utah may turn down federal money for education.
But first, a conversation with Michael Eric Dyson, professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins us from our bureau in New York City.
Nice to have you back on the program.
Professor MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (University of Pennsylvania; Author, "Is Bill Cosby Right?"): Always good to be here, Brother Neal.
CONAN: Let's start with the title of your book, which--you really see this as evidence of a class divide in the black community: "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?"
Prof. DYSON: Absolutely. I think that Bill Cosby is a lens unto a larger landscape of social and political struggle and arguments in black communities that have been taking place for more than a century. I see his divisive comments as a reflection of the bitter, seething politics of disdain for poor people among the more monied and the more privileged of black people. And so the poor folk are subject to vicious forms of assault by people with power, with money, with visibility and the like. It is not to suggest that poor people cannot be criticized. I have no romantic investment in black poor people, having been one myself. The point is, to what degree do we use our bully pulpits to assault the vicious contexts of white supremacy, economic inequality, social injustice, black bourgeois capitulation and seduction by their own privilege, their own material wealth, vs. the best of our black leaders and intellectuals who have always remembered it's a `both-and'?
Even as you speak about personal responsibility, you link that personal responsibility to its possibility of realization in a culture that either enables you to do better or puts its foot on your neck and keeps you from rising.
CONAN: Now this divide, you point out, is nothing new. It goes back to, well, the days right after slavery, for one thing.
Prof. DYSON: No doubt. Absolutely. You had a notion of racial uplift, where the privileged, elite, what I call the Afristocracy, were being, you know, surveilled by the white people of the time. And the white folk of the time were putting pressure on the black elite, both directly and indirectly. The direct pressure was: `Prove to us that you are a people worthy of freedom.' How hypocritical that was, since they had been enslaved for no other reason than their color. The more implicit one and explicit one, however, was about the relationship to poor people. The poor among you are somehow bringing the race down. The black middle class felt that `If we could just bring better behavior patterns to these poor black folk, the white folk would treat us better and we could prove to them that we were worthy of receiving the freedom that every other white person expects at birth.'
So there's a tremendous tension politically going on there that leads the black people who are in upper echelons and elite of African-American culture to somehow point out the faults and failures of the poor. And what I think Cosby did was nothing more than the 21st update of that ancient tradition.
CONAN: And some of the issues, you point out, are exactly the same: how people dress, how people talk, how people behave.
Prof. DYSON: Exactly. How people dress--black people walking down the street shooting the agate, as they said--a black style of promenading down the avenue--the more black people dress well, the more white people resented them. The flashy styles of the working class and the working poor were an especial offense to the more elite and elegant styles that black people favored among their own echelons. So the point is that the way they dress was problematic, and then the way they spoke. Did they speak the king's English to the queen's taste, or are they speaking some kind of black linguistic derivation, some kind of, you know, terrible form of black discourse that does not comport well in the broader, whiter society?
And finally, you know, how they talk and how they speak to one another and how they name their own children, I think, was a big problem a hundred years ago, certainly 75 years ago, and it's a huge problem now.
CONAN: Yeah. Well, that's what Cosby said in part of his remarks--the names: Shaniqua, Taniqua, Mohammed, he said.
Prof. DYSON: Well, yes. And he said, `Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all that crap, and they're all in jail.' Lest you believe that Mr. Cosby was engaging in etymological derivation of Annichi(ph) and Kai(ph), he was trying to, as the young people say, hate. He was assaulting people for how they named their children, what names they gave them. And I think that's none of my business. If your mother wants to name you Shaniqua, Taliqua or Mohammed, that's her business. The question is, do we perpetuate a legacy of bigotry that disallows us to appreciate the people behind the names? Nobody's going to ask Oprah Winfrey--and trust me, Oprah ain't no regular name. Nobody's going to ask Shaquille O'Neal; Shaquille ain't no regular name. Nobody's going to demand Condoleezza--`Excuse me, I ain't met another person named Condoleezza.' It's a distinct and unique name. Where is it derived from? Her mother took it from her love of music. It was a musical signature. That's like naming your kid Basso Profundo. I ain't mad at what you name your kid; it's what you answer to and how you treat people.
So we learn to love Condoleezza and Oprah and Shaquille, and as a result of that, we begin to accept the people behind the names. The bigotry of assuming that poor people should change their names, as opposed to challenging the society that assigns bigotry to them, is, I think, misled and ill-informed.
CONAN: Well, one of the things Mr. Cosby was arguing, though, is if you are going to challenge that society, it's fine to speak the language that you do among your group, but if you're going to challenge the dominant society, you'd better be able to speak its language.
Prof. DYSON: Well, I have no problem with that, but let me complexify it, to create a word. The reality is that I saw, maybe within the last year, white, elderly people on TV, with a commercial: `Where you at?' `Oh, I'm just chillin' here with my peeps.' Now white commercial culture has reaped extraordinary benefit from the reproduction of these black symptoms of language, their black style, the black vernacular. So it's all right to be appropriated for commercial culture for the purposes of corporate America, but the very black people who generate the language are getting dissed.
And let me tell you something: Mr. Cosby has been an ebonicus laureate of black America: `I don't know how to talk like these people.' Oh, I disagree. You speak Ebonics in significant fashion: `Da corner,' not `the corner.' Talking about `I don't be no,' `the Jell-O and the puddin' pie.' You're speaking Ebonics. Fat Albert, Dumb Donald, Weird Harold: `I'mba goin'ba beba backba'--that is linguistic creativity that derives from the black language styles and patterns of our culture.
Now, of course, we want to be able to cold switch, as the sociologists say. When you're among your peeps, `Whassup? How ya doin'?' When you're in corporate America, when you want to speak the king's English to the queen's taste, do so. But the point is, don't believe that doing one makes you better than doing the other. It means that you understand that certain standards of appropriate language are acceptable and, therefore, desirable in one situation vs. another. But don't get it twisted, as the young people say. Millions of dollars--indeed, billions of dollars--have been made off of WB network, UPN and hip-hop culture, where the black language styles that Mr. Cosby has cast aspersion against have created an industry that has been extraordinarily successful and certainly deeply influential.
CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's begin with Eunice, and Eunice is calling us from Charlotte.
EUNICE (Caller): Yes. My question is to the gentleman, what is his opinion in regard to the breakdown of the family in the African-American--where there's no father in the home or there's certainly a lack of male there? With jail statistics...
Prof. DYSON: Yes, ma'am.
EUNICE: ...teen-age pregnancy, do we have any type of responsibility? What is his opinion in regard to that?
Prof. DYSON: Yes, ma'am. Thank you for your question. It's interesting to not, Eunice, that you have a name that, perhaps, according to the bigotry of people in the upper echelon and class, would not even recognize your intelligence, which is manifest here today. I think what's interesting is that, of course, we have personal responsibility, but personal responsibility is but one slice of the pie of responsibility. What about moral responsibility? What more about social responsibility? Personal responsibility is key. When you go to any church on any Sunday, any temple, any mosque, they are repeating what Cosby said, hopefully in more balanced and judicious fashion.
But I am an ordained Baptist minister myself. I know that Sunday in and Sunday out, black folk are morally remonstrating against the terrible, diseased, pathological practices that we perpetuate. We call ourselves to accountability for them. We say that they are wrong. We say, `Stop doing it.' We speak out against it. But at the same time, we judge those characteristics in relationship to a larger culture, when at the same time it's being hypocritical, because if the culture only jumps on black people for some of the same stuff that goes on in white culture, but they only point it out when it goes among black people--when you talk about licentiousness, my God, Paris Hilton has a porn tape out and her ratings are shooting through the ceiling. She is a very rich woman who comes from tremendous money, and yet she exhibits some of the same characteristics that Mr. Cosby attaches to poor people.
Now let's be honest. Vulnerable, poor people are more subject to their own vices; that is that they will--their vices will count more negatively against them than rich people, because they don't have the money to cushion them. We can all acknowledge that. But let's not pretend that there's a moral superiority to rich people vs. those who are poor.
CONAN: Eunice, thanks very much for the phone call.
EUNICE: Well, OK. Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Eric Dyson about his view that the black middle and upper classes have abandoned their responsibilities to the poor. We'll take more of your calls after a break. (800) 989-8255; e-mail is email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
A year ago, comedian Bill Cosby debuted a new rift: that poor blacks need to take personal responsibility for the ills that plague their communities--poverty, illiteracy, high dropout rates from school and high incarceration rates. Now the debate he sparked has a new entry: cultural scholar Michael Eric Dyson's new book, "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" You can read an excerpt from that book and listen to our interview last year with Bill Cosby on our Web site, www.npr.org.
What do you think? Where does responsibility for--does that change society's attempt to improve social conditions? Our number is (800) 989-8255, and our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's get another caller on the line with Michael Eric Dyson. Stacy joins us. Stacy's with us from Detroit.
STACY (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?
STACY: ...(Unintelligible) I love your show.
CONAN: Thank you.
STACY: To answer your original question when you started the program out, this is not a new discussion. This is an old thing, only right now white people are listening, OK? That is the only thing that's new about it. Hello, Michael. It was really good to hear your voice.
Prof. DYSON: Hey, thank you, Stacy.
STACY: But I'm a little irritated with you, my brother. I'm sorry.
Prof. DYSON: OK. That's all right.
STACY: You know, for folks who are sitting out there going, `It's racism, it's racism, it's racism,' I've had enough. After 50 years, 50-plus years, how much further do you think white folks are going to go? Instead of telling us, `Oh, it's all that racism out there,' you guys need to give us--you who are in the leadership need to give us some direction in terms of answers to the racism other than to point out and say, `They're wrong, they're wrong.' Otherwise, we're going to be in the same place...
Prof. DYSON: OK.
STACY: ...as we have been for the past 200 and some-odd years.
Prof. DYSON: Yes, ma'am.
STACY: That's been my irritation, is that I hear the same thing of march around the White House, sue somebody or picking yourself up by your bootstraps, as Mr. Cosby is saying. So you guys need to come up with something else.
Prof. DYSON: All right.
STACY: And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Stacy.
Prof. DYSON: Yes, ma'am. Well, I think Stacy's--first of all, thank you so very much for calling. But I think that my own response has not been `Oh, it's the white man, oh, it's the white man, oh, it's the white man.' Because the best of black leadership has always had a twin focus. On the one hand, from Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey, across ideological spectra, from Dorothy Height on one side and Mary McLeod Bethune to more conservative leaders--I've mentioned Mr. Booker T. Washington and others--the reality is that African-American leadership has always understood that you must emphasize personal behavior and responsibility while at the same time speaking about social injustice and structural barriers.
The privilege that you have to call a radio station today in the freedom of your home in Detroit, which is my hometown, from where I hail, and be able to engage in a conversation in a multicultural America is the product of people who struggled against racist barriers. So the very privilege to lament the persistence of a rhetoric against white supremacy has benefited you, has been made possible, by the very folk that you now call into question. That's beautiful, but understand that paradox.
Number two, I'm not trying to suggest that we got to blame the white--it's not either blame the white man or, on the other hand, talk about what black folk themselves ought to do. Because you said already you're tired of the marching, you're tired of the suing and you're tired of the `Pick yourself up by the bootstrap.' The reality is that, when you speak about a poor person--let's give you one example. If a mother is working two jobs, she doesn't have flex time to be able to go pay attention to her kid at the PTA as much as she wants, or, when that child is sick, to be able to address that child, because they are part of what we now know as the working poor: people who work 40 and 50 hours a week and yet can barely, if ever, make it above the poverty level.
So the ability to say, `Well, I don't want to just either blame the white man or talk about personal responsibility' misses that mother. That mother is caught in a punishing network of exportation of jobs, of downsizing, of outsourcing, of the fleeing of capital from our post-industrial urban centers, and, at the same time, the suspicion and bigotry of those who are different. So it's not a straw-man argument about the white man; that's ridiculous. That's old school. What is new school, the newfangled racism, appears when if your name is Shaniqua you can't even get called in for a job interview.
So what I'm trying to lay out here is the way in which we need people of responsible leadership--yes, like myself; yes, like Mr. Cosby--to come up with much more enlightened, insightful analyses of the problems to begin with, and then hold the correct quarters of the culture responsible, both within black America, but especially outside. I'm not yet willing to give up on making the larger society responsible.
Let me end by saying this: If Martin Luther King Jr. had approached it the way you suggest--`Well, how far are white folk gonna go?'--he would have never marched in the street. You would have never had a voting right in the South. We would have never had the Civil Rights Act passed and, subsequently, we would never have had the Fair Housing Act passed. If Martin Luther King Jr. had surrendered his responsibility by saying, `White resistance is so huge that we will never be able to secure black freedom,' we would have never had the privileges we have now. If you want freedom, it's going to cost you. It's going to cost you intellectually, it's going to cost you spiritually, it's going to cost you emotionally and it's going to cost your sideline, spectatorial ability. You are a leader as well, Stacy. You can't just indict those who lead by example and who are obviously doing so. You must take responsibility in your community, in your church, in your neighborhood, and, daresay, in your family, and make sure that things are different than what they have been in the past.
CONAN: You're a preacher in your spare time? It's hard to believe.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: What about Stacy's first point, that what's different now, she said, is that white people are listening. You write, `Perhaps the most damaging consequence of Cosby's war on the poor is that they're left less defended and much more vulnerable to rebuff, even by folk--policy analysts, public policy-makers, politicians--who might be sitting on the fence wondering what to do about the poor and who now get a huge cue from Cosby that it's just fine to leave them to sink or swim for themselves.'
Prof. DYSON: Yes.
CONAN: Part of your concern seems to be that, yes, white people were listening.
Prof. DYSON: Exactly right. And they're listening to a conversation that they're not really hip to. You know, when you look at your favorite soap--maybe you're looking at "Desperate Housewives"; maybe you like "24"--and you're sitting there and your friend comes over who doesn't--you know, is not attuned to it, and you're trying to explain to them what Jack did; `Who's Jack?' You're trying to tell them what happened. You've got to break down the characters. If they make a moral judgment based upon that one scene, they don't know the whole story. And I'm telling you, many white folk, bless their hearts, know the whole story, but many of them don't. They're not familiar with the major characters. They don't know the dramatis personae who have populated the great drama and struggle for black justice.
So now they get in on a conversation that's been going on for a long time among black folk, who are speaking shorthand, and they don't quite get it. So now public policy-makers who hear Mr. Cosby assaulting the poor and saying that they are responsible begin to change their mind. They say, `Well, we thought we had to help them because we had to indict our own social practices for their failure to be able to assist these people. Now, as Mr. Cosby is saying, they gotta do it themselves. So maybe we shouldn't put this extra money into this program. Maybe we should cut Head Start. Maybe we shouldn't support the educational institutions and after-care programs and after-school programs.'
And I'm telling you, that's deleterious and pernicious. And let me give you one example. I was reading the paper down in Atlanta; the folk down there said, `Look, we were so inspired by Mr. Cosby, now we're going to have billboards in poor communities and the ZIP codes where we know criminals are coming from, not to reach out to them to say, "Let's have better education," not to reach out to them to suggest that we should intervene earlier to prevent them from going to prison, but to put up billboards to warn them: "Many criminals come from your ZIP code, and if you're not careful, we're going to put you in jail, too."' That's a destructive consequence on a public policy as a direct result of what Mr. Cosby said.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Drew is calling from Wichita in Kansas.
DREW (Caller): Good afternoon.
DREW: By the way, Professor, I have to tell you, if nothing else, I admire your vocabulary.
Prof. DYSON: Bless you, sir.
DREW: Gives a person time to think. I think your premise has one major fault to it, and that is that it is not a criticism that needs to be brought against the poor. I think that it is a criticism that needs to be brought against the irresponsible poor. I think that Mr. Cosby did raise some points that, you know, probably did go beyond the pale. My grandfather was Scotch-English and his name was Maylen. So, you know, the odd names are not given to any particular, you know...
DREW: ...one race of peoples or another. But I think that we see a problem growing all through our culture where we have a lower class that wants to become better, that wants to improve their lot in the way of things. And, by the way, you can't focus on a social morality, I don't think, until you have that individual morality for people. But, you know, until they're willing to do the things to become what they want to become, it's not going to change. You don't go do--you know, you don't hang out with a bunch of plumbers to learn how to become a computer technician. You go where the people are you want to become like. That's not to put down plumbers; it's to say...
Prof. DYSON: Right.
DREW: ...you go where you want to go. Further, in terms of the way you speak, you know, I don't--if I want to go talk to my banker, I don't go speak computer geek to him. I don't go speak frat boy to him. You need to be able to move through the cultural stratas to be successful in our modern society, and it's just a situation, I think, that what we need to address is the irresponsibility--excuse me--the irresponsible poor who want to spend money on, you know, the hubcaps and the bling-blings, rather than put that 5 bucks away every week to get out of where they're at.
Prof. DYSON: OK. No, it's very well-stated and eloquently articulated. But let me address a few of those.
Prof. DYSON: Interesting--when you said the `irresponsible poor'--now had you stopped at irresponsible, we could have had an agreement here, because if Mr. Cosby and the rest of us want to assault people who are irresponsible regardless of their class--let me give you an example. Mr. Cosby was especially outraged by, let's call him, Junior or Pooky or Taliq, you know, the guy who's out there who stole some pound cake, $5 or a Coca-Cola. And he said, `We get mad when the police shoot him, and why was he stealing the pound cake in the first place?'
Well, let me remember, Mr. Cosby went to court with Martha Stewart. Hmm. He didn't come out of that courtroom and you say, `You know what? White billionaires are going to ruin the world because despite their enormous wealth, their greed leads them to try to lie about a transaction over $220,000. Now that's irresponsible, and that's immoral. And according to the government, it was illegal.'
Now we know Martha Stewart got railroaded because she's a woman, 'cause guys play the ...(unintelligible) every day and the numbers every day, and they do this every day. But here's my point: If you're mad at irresponsibility, you'll be mad at irresponsibility wherever you see it manifest, whether it's the rich or the poor. To focus on the poor is to portray a class anxiety that is historically rooted in black communities about, `How will these white people look at us?'
What did Cosby say in his speech? (Imitating Cosby) `The white man, he's got to be laughing. He's laughing at us.' (In normal voice) Now Mr. Cosby says he doesn't care about what white people say, but obviously his own speech betrays the reality that he feels that white folk are looking at black people, and he is ashamed that white people will look at us and see what they see.
Now when you talk about social morality vs. individual morality--look, you're born in a culture that teaches you good or bad things. Dr. Kenneth Clark died
recently, and we celebrate his life because he talked about the degree to which the larger society forced the young, black people to feel inferior about themselves. It's not an individual responsibility; they learned from a culture. They got a cue from a broader culture that they were not worth anything. So their individual self-esteem was shaped in a culture that gave them cues about how they were inferior as black people. So there's a more dynamic relationship, and we learn to value ourselves in a culture that teaches us to do so. But if it teaches us that we're ugly because we have dark skin, ugly because we have broad noses, we might treat our skin like Michael Jackson and bleach ourselves in an ocean of whiteness seeking the approval of a dominant culture. And yet we hate ourselves.
So my point finally is that when we speak about the poor people, I'm saying, when you say they they spend a lot of money on hubcaps and bling-bling as opposed to doing the right thing, the consumer culture of black people is much more complex than the stereotype Mr. Cosby presented. I talk about in my book a study, a systematic, empirical, anthropological, ethnographic study, that says that young black consumers are much more complex. First of all, they're told from the day that they're born that they can't just waste their money. So they end up spending their money not only on things they want, but on things for the family because they realize they have to have a communal ethic at the heart of their consumption, so they must share what they get.
Now that's against the grain and the perception of young people. I'm suggesting to you when you break down the numbers and you look behind the story, yes, it is necessary for us to hold each other accountable, including the poor, but if we stigmatize the poor and isolate them as if they are somehow morally alienated from the larger American society--rich folk got as many problems as poor folk. There are rich men who cheat on their wives--Hello?--there are rich men who stray from their families, who mistreat their children, who do all kinds of nefarious things. Ken Lay has got a regular name, and yet he has problems with Enron. All of these corporate thieves who have ripped off millions and billions of dollars collectively are people who are in the upper echelons of American culture, and yet they have reprehensible moral habits. They're greedy. They spend money on stuff they want. They want bling-bling, too; it's just not as evident.
So I'm saying, when we're willing to hold everybody accountable for their relative responsibility then we can speak about how the poor have to be pointed out. Until such time, to jump on the poor, especially for Mr. Cosby, is to, I think, perpetuate a stereotypical vision of poor black people that is not borne out by the facts or empirical investigation.
DREW: You are correct that, you know, no generalization is worth a damn, including this one, as the saying goes. You know, so we're going to find exceptions all across the board. But to go to next to your last point, in terms of the culture and the way that it influences how people perceive their own self-worth, you know, I know that, you know, if my son has, you know, one something or another that is going to a detriment to him--I mean, I personally don't send him where there are people who are going to go ahead and instill in him the idea through social pressure that he has a detriment. I instead go ahead and either isolate him from them or I send him to people that give him the idea that it doesn't matter what his circumstances are--physical, economic, whatever--that he has the ability, that he can individually overcome if he himself chooses to do that. I...
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Drew, I'm sorry I had to cut off the last part of your question there. But let's get a response from Michael Eric Dyson. I think we got your point.
Prof. DYSON: Yeah. You know what? Here's the thing that I think is very interesting. The last point he made is an index of what people now talk about as white privilege. To have the leisure to isolate your child and to--this is a detrimental ideal in the culture--you can then somehow cushion the impact psychologically by removing them from that context is something that many people of color--Latinos, Native Americans, African-Americans and Asians--can't do because the culture is shot through with vicious images of black people, sometimes, to be certain, emanating from black culture itself.
So now when you turn on television--the study just done the other day--black people watch more television than anybody else. So we're getting the images that are perpetuating a negative, vicious stereotype and a legacy of self-hatred that we cannot somehow remove ourselves from.
So what I'm suggesting then is that the culture in which we live has to be talked about. We have to hold ourselves accountable for what expose our children to. But at the same time, let's not pretend that individual autonomy and responsibility can somehow change structural features in the culture. I don't care how well you behave. If the company that used to employ people in your town leaves, all your good behavior won't stop exportation of jobs to Mexico or Indonesia to seek markets where they can pay people criminally low wages and yet deprive you of a standard wage. I'm telling you that good behavior will not solve the fundamental economic inequality of school systems that spend twice the money on suburban schools as they spend on inner-city schools. Those are the kind of realities that good behavior will never solve. I'm not arguing against good behavior; I'm suggesting let's not exaggerate the role of good behavior in the solution of problems that are essentially beyond individual merit or initiative.
CONAN: Michael Eric Dyson's book is "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" We'll continue our conversation after we come back from a short break. And we'll go to Utah, where the state school system wants to leave behind federal education standards.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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Today, we're talking about issues of class and responsibility in the black community. Bill Cosby started a debate by calling poor blacks to account. Now cultural scholar Michael Eric Dyson says it's the black middle class that's abandoned its responsibilities. Professor Dyson is still with us from New York City to continue our conversation.
And let's get an e-mail in from Craig in Tucson, Arizona. `My black son has an above-average IQ and attended classes for gifted children through junior high school. However, in the middle of junior high, he began to get flak from his peers about acting too white. With this peer pressure, his grades have sunk. My once straight-A son now in high school just received two D's and an F on his report card. This is an aspect of black culture--branding intelligence and achievement as white--this breeds poverty,' he said. `Sister Aretha Franklin once heralded our pride in being young, gifted and black. What happened?'
Prof. DYSON: A very good point. I actually addressed this is my book, generically, this notion of acting white. First of all, the notion of acting white got introduced into the culture in 1986 with a study by two anthropologists of one single school, I believe, in Washington, DC. Since that time, it has been replicated to the point that it has become something like the academic version of an urban legend. There have been many longitudinal studies since then, over space and time, that have tracked students--thousands of them, tens of thousands of them--who are black, and it has concluded that this notion of acting white is a very specific phenomenon usually shown in schools where white students outnumber black students, where they have access to AB courses--AP courses, advanced courses, where black students don't. And as a result of that, the resentment of the black student of being--getting closed out is that they have been assigned--that is, those white students--a kind of privilege that they are kept from. So this acting white phenomena is judged to be something that's terrible because white folk get something that black folk can never get.
The point is that anti-intellectualism is an American disease. Richard Hofstadter wrote a book in 1963 that said when we made the choice of, you know, Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson, that betrayed the essential unintelligence, or at least the anti-intellectualism, of the American populace. We look at it now. George Bush got major kudos in the last election and the first one for being anti-intellectual, despite going to Harvard and Yale. His elitism was muffled by and covered by this notion that he was an everyday guy with whom you could share a beer.
So anti-intellectualism is a problem in black communities because it's a problem in America. The anti-intellectual attitudes that I confront as a professor are deep and pervasive in every culture. To single them out among black people I think is especially destructive, because now it signifies everybody else is smart and wants to go to school, but black folk aren't. I cite in the book studies that have been done both anthropologically and ethnographically and empirically that suggest that black students are just as interested in achievement as white students, that black parents more than white parents discuss the day's events with their children, that black students derive significant recognition from being called `smart' and that they want to go to college in equally impressive numbers as their white peers.
This notion of acting white has taken on a life of its own. And though I'm sure that brother Craig in Arizona is right, that disease of not wanting to appear to be a chump or soft because you are intelligent and smart is, trust me, not something that can be segregated among black people. That's an American problem that we've got to confront.
CONAN: One more caller in on this subject, Mara. Mara's with us from Roanoke in Virginia.
MARA (Caller): Yes. I've been listening to the professor talk, and I was wondering, in a lot of ways--he's talking about how white people are making this problem--that's ...(unintelligible). Let me rephrase that entirely. He was saying that white people are looking and can't understand, and he's right because I don't understand it. But what can we do as white people to help?
Prof. DYSON: Yes, ma'am. Well, first of all...
MARA: Do you understand?
Prof. DYSON: Yeah--oh, absolutely.
Prof. DYSON: And thank you for that desire. One of the reasons I wrote this book is to provide a broader context so that white brothers and sisters--and let's be honest, it's not just white people like yourself; there are a whole bunch of black people who don't understand this problem as well, because...
Prof. DYSON: ...what a profound internalization of racism to assume because you're born black you know black. I have to warn students all the time just 'cause you were born with black skin doesn't mean you know all the achievements of black people and all the intricacies and interstitial problems we've had. So my point is let's study our culture. And I think that it's a beautiful thing that you have that desire. I think that what you can do, first of all, is become educated about the diversity of black people, that we're not a monolithic community, that we don't have one ideal. There are many ideals, some of which we--you know, so that different axes are important in black community: ideology, sexual orientation, geography. Those things make a big difference as to what you believe.
You know, I'd rather have a progressive Jewish brother and sister on the Supreme Court than a guy like Clarence Thomas who bears no responsibility to those black people. Now that's me, so that I have to interrogate and ask questions about the ethical content of your identity, not the color of your skin.
Now the final thing I think that many white brothers and sisters can do is, A, be educated about the complexity of black culture, B, learn as much as you can about the actual ordinary lives of everyday black people and, three, know more than one black person. I hear many white people say, `My black friend told me.' Don't rely on one black person whose your friend, even if its Michael Eric Dyson or Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Have a network of relationships where you begin to understand the internal differences and the complex variations among black people so that you can understand. And, fourthly, have what Mr. Cosby, I think, manifestly did not have that day: a compassionate outlook...
Prof. DYSON: ...on the difficult problems faced by people who are vulnerable.
Prof. DYSON: All right?
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Mara.
Prof. DYSON: Thank you, Mara.
MARA: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: Let me just wind up. It's been a year now since Bill Cosby first made this speech. And, as you point out, he's not the first to point these things out and presumably not the last.
Prof. DYSON: Right.
CONAN: They got a lot of publicity because of who he is and where he said it. Has it been a useful conversation?
Prof. DYSON: Well, I think it's been useful to the degree that we've at least had to ask sharp questions and interesting questions about what he said, why said it, the context in which he said it. So in that sense, yes, it's been an interesting conversation.
But sometimes when--you started off by saying, `Was it a hand grenade or a lightning rod?' You know, Timothy McVeigh had a point. Maybe the state is overreaching and imposing limits upon autonomous individual citizens. But dadgum, the way you made your point was destructive and altogether evil. So I'm saying that, yes, you might be throwing a hand grenade, Mr. Cosby, but are you really serving the ultimate end? Because the ultimate end is not to beat up on poor people; I assume the ultimate end is to love them compassionately into their best selves.
When I was a student at Princeton University, I went there--I didn't go to an undergraduate Ivy League school. My professor, Jeffrey Stout, every week marked my papers. I read books. He put red marks on my papers. I came back the next week, I tried to get better. He was a renowned ethicist, but he pointed out to me the things I did right every week. He says, `This is excellent. You did this well. However, this you didn't do as well. What can we do to make sure that the rest of what you wrote measures up to what you wrote here?' So he trained me in the virtue and the habitual recognition of excellence because I desired it, and he gave me the sense of possibility that I could achieve it.
This is what we need: the virtue of patience and the courage to reach out compassionately to the poor. There is a culturewide assault and attack on poor people across the board, regardless of your color, especially vulnerable, poor women of all races, especially black and Latino women and children. And I'm saying they don't need to have a foot pressed down harder on their neck; they need a hand. They need a hand up. They need a hand--not a handout, but the ability--as Dorothy Day said, `I want to work toward a world in which it's easier for people to behave decently.' That's what I'm trying to do.
So in that sense, the conversation's important because it's older than Cosby, it's younger than today's news and what we have to do is to make sure that we provide insights and context that allows people who want to help those who are more vulnerable to reach out and do it in a productive fashion.
CONAN: And I'm running out of time, but did you really mean to draw a comparison between Bill Cosby's remarks and the horrible bombing in Oklahoma City?
Prof. DYSON: No, that's why--I thought I made that--let me make that explicitly clear. I am not in any way suggesting that Bill Cosby is a terrorist in any fashion. But when you started the show by talking about a lightning rod or a bomb or a hand grenade--excuse me--I was suggesting that you can throw a hand grenade in or a bomb--I was talking about Timothy McVeigh, and I was saying that you can make a point, but the way you make it so destructive. No way. Bill Cosby has been extraordinarily generous, he has been loving in terms of giving monies to African-American people and making certain that people who have been historically vulnerable and incapable of getting an education would move forward. So I am in no way suggesting that Mr. Cosby is any way linked morally to Mr. McVeigh.
What I'm suggesting, however, is that the approach that he adopted for his ostensible purpose, which is to uplift poor people, was quite subversive of his intent. And what I am suggesting is that there are more compassionate, loving and enabling ways for him to make a point of judging and subsequently holding to account poor people than the one he took.
CONAN: Michael Eric Dyson, thanks very much.
Prof. DYSON: Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: Michael Eric Dyson is the author most recently of "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" He joined us from our bureau in New York. You can read an excerpt of Michael Eric Dyson's book by going to our Web site, npr.org. And also there you can hear our previous interview with Bill Cosby about his comments to the NAACP.
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