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In regard to crime, Butts also is skeptical that Cosby's appeal to personal responsibility will have much effect, if only because it's highly selectivemere weeks before Cosby launched his barrage against the black poor, he was spotted sitting in the courtroom, in support of Martha Stewart. "Of course people's behavior is something they choose, but it would be unfair to think about this only in reference to street crime," says Butts. "If I say 'crime,' most people think of someone sticking a gun in their face. But they should also think Ken Lay, Martha Stewart, Halliburton. But no one preaches to them about personal responsibility."
Given the hard stats on crime, one wonders why Cosby would choose now, with black youth in a better place than their forebears, to launch a broadside. This isn't exactly 1994 or 1964. Cosby's office referred a call for a comment to a prepared statement, which basically said the media was distorting his remarks, that he never meant to criticize poor black people.
Video: Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss Bill Cosby on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
Whatever his intent, Cosby is showing his age. "It's part of a general pessimism that people have toward young people," says Cobb. "This idea that black people, 35 and under, have not done enough to take advantage of the opportunities that the earlier generation made available is ultimately shortsighted, but it's also no different than any other generation. We can talk about the folks before, during the great migration, who thought kids brought up in the North were missing something, or before them and with people coming out of slavery who thought their kids weren't taking advantage of opportunitiesit's the same thing."
In his winter, Cosby is proving no more insightful than your crotchety old uncle, standing on the corner shaking his cane, ranting to no one in particular: "Damn kids!" Of course, no one in his or her right mind would hand your uncle a bullhorn.