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In 1988, Bill Cosby elevated himself from black middle-class ambassador to bona fide Race Man. And he did it the old-fashioned waywith cold cash. That year, the entertainer donated a mind-numbing $20 million to his daughter's historically black alma mater, Spelman College. Cosby's largesse, toward the end of the greed-and-grab '80s, occasioned much soul-searching among the black bourgeois. On the campus of Spelman, the gift simply occasioned shock. "I woke up the next morning and pinched myself to see if it had been a dream," Spelman president Johnnetta B. Cole told a reporter.
Cosby's philanthropy and political activism also have had another effectthey've made him virtually untouchable. Over the past two months, Cosby has used his legendary wit to attack African Americans with a stream of invective that normally would have black columnists spilling ink by the gallon and the NAACP calling for boycotts and pickets. Not only couldn't a white person get away with calling black youth "dirty laundry," there's not a black person on the planet who could, either.
Well, except maybe for one. Cosby's shtick, characterized by blaming poor black people for the state of the race and making light of police brutality, has been met with either tepid criticism or tacit approval.
Video: Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss Bill Cosby on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
"Cosby has done some legitimate philanthropic good," says William Jelani Cobb, a columnist for africana.com and an assistant professor of history at Spelman. "So people generally perceive criticizing him as a slap in the face, given the contributions he's made. He's supposed to have an exemption because he's giving money."
Beyond his philanthropy, Cosby has a long history of political activism that serves to insulate him from critics. He's a longtime friend of Randall Robinson, founder of the pro-Africa lobbying group TransAfrica Forum. During the '80s, Cosby joined with Arthur Ashe, Harry Belafonte, and Muhammad Ali to protest apartheid in South Africa.
Further, Cosby has repeatedly opened his checkbook for progressive black political candidates including Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson Jr. In 1990, Cosby donated to Harvey Gantt's Senate campaign to unseat the hated Jesse Helms in North Carolina. This was the same campaign in which native son Michael Jordan, a Nike pitchman, refused to back the African American Gantt, coldly noting that "Republicans buy shoes, too."
Cosby's historic willingness to duke it out for progressive causes, and to put his money where his mouth is, has made him a virtually unique figure among black celebrities. It's also given him a free pass to trade in the sort of barbs Trent Lott would like to get away with. Black leadership is loath to criticize Cosby because he willingly pairs big bucks with big talkeven when he's talking out his ass.
For all their mean-spiritedness and elitism, Cosby's rantings have suffered from his unwillingness to allow facts and stats to get in the way of a good dig. "At any time you can pull stuff out the newspaper that sounds horrible, of any race and any people," says Mike Males, a senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "I looked at all these measures that he's talking about, and I saw that none of them were any worse than they were in the past. In fact, many are better."
Males should know. After hearing Cosby grumble that the young were trampling over the work of the old, he went and crunched some numbers and came up with some shockers:
Cosby took particular glee in lampooning black criminality. But his bit about black kids stealing pound cake stands in direct contrast to a decade-long decline in crime rates across the board. "The African American numbers came down with everyone else's. It wasn't a race-specific trend," says Jeffrey Butts, director of the Program on Youth Justice at the Urban Institute. "In terms of violent crimes, those types of crime are down to the level where we were in the late 1960s, which is very low. It does vary by the race of the victimyou are still more likely to be victimized in certain neighborhoods, where certain people live. But even those most dangerous neighborhoods are safer than they were in 1994."
To be sure, the black community is no field of liliesin nearly all statistical indicators African Americans lag behind their white counterparts. In the employment arena, in particular, black men are in dire straits. But Mark Levitan, who recently authored a report that demonstrated an appalling 50 percent employment rate among black men in New York City, is skeptical that a Cosby-esque appeal to personal responsibility will change that.
"The interesting thing is that people were saying [similar things as Cosby] about African American women 10 years ago. In a certain way, I think welfare reform put the lie to that," says Levitan. "We had a change in policy and the blessing of a strong labor market. There were sticks but also some carrotsmore child care, more Medicare, an increase in the earned-income tax credit. We saw a huge influx of people into the job market. The so-called culture is largely a myth. Changing the law in a good labor market showed that if people get a little help, they will respond."
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.
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.