If you put racism and classism together and have it pour from the mouths of those who vilify the low-income members of their own race because they have yet to adopt the customs of the middle-class, you have an extraordinarily toxic cocktail that has the potential to gut the bedrock of progressive polices of the 20th century, from Brown v. Board to the Civil Rights Act to affirmative action. I call this toxic cocktail "The New Black Racial Classism."
The New Black Racial Classism appeared on my radar screen when Bill Cosby ripped into low-income blacks in May 2004 at an NAACP gala event to mark the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board. As a way to celebrate, Cosby decided to excoriate poor blacks.
The speech has been called "The Pound Cake Speech" because Cosby referred to an incident in which a young black man was shot and killed by the police after he stole a pound cake: "Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and we're outraged, 'Ah, the cops shouldn'ta shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?" (quoted in Dyson, Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, p. 59)
Here are some other excerpts:
"The lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal. In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. ... I'm talking about people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? And where were you when he was 18, and how come you don't know he had a pistol? . . . Brown v. Board of Education is no longer the white person's problem. We've got to take the neighborhood back. We've got to go in there. Just forget telling your child to go to the Peace Corps. It's right around the corner. It can't speak English. It doesn't want to speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk. "Why you ain't where you is go, ra." ... Everybody knows how important it is to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't land a plane with 'Why you ain't ...' You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth."
A similar kind of savage vitriol drips from the lips of John McWhorter, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Like Cosby, McWhorter also is black. Like Cosby, McWhorter also has a thing about poor people, especially poor black people. Like Cosby, McWhorter also relays a story about a young black man who was murdered. Like Cosby, McWhorter also uses the story rhetorically to suggest that these murders could be understood -- and justified -- given the contexts in which they occurred. These stories are also used by both men as allegories of what has gone wrong with, as Cosby calls them, "these people."
For Cosby, the fact that a young black man was shot for stealing a pound cake is trumped by the thunder of his rhetorical question, "What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?" While I certainly would not want to defend someone for stealing anything, I would wonder why a young black man would steal a pound cake. I would ask genuinely, not rhetorically, "What was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? Why did he steal it? Why would anyone steal a pound cake? What were the factors that contributed to this action?" I would also wonder why stealing a pound cake warrants being shot and killed. I might also wonder how many young white men had been shot and killed for similar offenses.
For McWhorter, a young black man getting shot serves as a kind of template for poor blacks as a whole. In describing an episode of inner-city violence involving a young black man named Robert Parsons, McWhorter -- like Cosby -- poses his own rhetorical question. In musing on Parson's life and death, McWhorter smirks glibly, "One might expect that someone with four offspring would work nine to five (at least?), but Parsons worked only part-time. He was a 'free spirit,' apparently, and then he also had injured one of his hands. But really, there are so very many ways one can work full-time without having full power in one hand, and there remains the simple question as to why a man with four kids worked only part-time." (Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, p. 9)
The "simple question as to why a man with four kids worked only part-time" might be answered in a number of different ways. "What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?" might also be answered in a number of different ways. Unfortunately, neither Cosby nor McWhorter chooses to address these questions at all. If they were to ask these questions seriously and not rhetorically, it would require that they do something that neither one of them is willing to do: put aside their bitter disdain for low-income blacks and consider the issues in depth. But rather than do this, both Cosby and McWhorter choose to use these examples as measures of poor blacks' fall into depravity. They are not interested in analysis. They are interested in morality tales. And the moral of their stories? Poor blacks should quit their whining and assume responsibility for their lives.
A simpler, more powerful moral could not be found. How could anyone argue the merits of such a lesson? Indeed, for blacks like Cosby and McWhorter, it must be especially painful to look at all "these people." As Cosby railed, "People with their hats on backwards, pants down around the crack, isn't that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? Isn't it a sign of something when she has her dress all the way up to the crack and got all type of needles going through her body? What part of Africa did this come from? Those people are not Africans; they don't know a damn thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua, and Mohammed and all of that crap, and all of them are in jail."
But as any simpleton can point out, it's easy for those that have made it to condemn those that haven't. Ironically -- and cruelly -- Cosby knows better. He himself came from poverty. He himself acknowledged the pernicious effects of racism in his own doctoral dissertation. According to Michael Eric Dyson in his book Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, "Cosby spoke passionately in his dissertation about the reasons black students fail: because of the urban school's indifference to changing learning conditions; because they have had the right to fail removed; because they are bored, due to the unimaginative methods of teachers interested in controlling the student; and because little of what goes on in class makes sense. Cosby argued that the failure black children experienced would only reinforce 'the debilitating sense of worthlessness whites convey in a variety of ways,' feeding the self-hatred of the black student." (from Bill Cosby's dissertation An Integration of the Visual Media Via Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning, University of Massachusetts, September 1976, p. 8; quoted in Dyson, Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, p. 70)
Cosby himself made a career -- and a very famous cartoon show called Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids -- about the life and language of inner-city kids. And he himself failed 10th grade not once but three times and eventually dropped out of school. Yet somewhere along the way, Cosby got sick and tired of what he saw. Perhaps he lost faith. Perhaps he has become old and crotchety. Yet his attack on low-income blacks is especially powerful because it comes from him -- Cos, the Jello Pudding Man, the Fat Albert guy, the funny, likeable guy, Dr. Huxtable -- one of the most well-known and well-respected black men in America.
McWhorter is a different story, a classic case of Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital, of power and privilege being bestowed upon those in a particular socioeconomic milieu or what Bourdieu calls "habitus." And, as McWhorter's life story makes clear, power and privilege can be bestowed on anyone, regardless of his or her race.
Click here for more on McWhorter's bio.
"My parents were rather socially insular people who conveyed, without ever being explicit about it, that 'we' were not like 'them,' " McWhorter says. "It wasn't that I didn't spend time with other black kids. But I was inculcated subtly with a sense that 'You do not do what they do.' "
McWhorter says he could not escape the troubling attitudes that he says are prevalent among both black students and some of his black colleagues. Not only did he find black students not working hard, but he believes they tended to overstate the presence of racism to confound whites and fit in with one another.
So, once again, Cosby's and McWhorter's moral is, "Poor blacks should quit their whining and assume responsibility for their lives." Coming from Cosby, this spiritual tonic might have some legitimacy. But coming from McWhorter -- someone whose parents were both middle class and who both worked at universities, who went to private school, who shunned sports for books, who shunned other black kids ("You do not do what they do") -- there is no legitimacy whatsoever in his trashing poor people. His "analysis" reminds me of something that Professor Henry Higgins might have written. But instead of singing, "Why Can't the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?", McWhorter would sing, "Why Can't the Negro Teach Their Children How to Speak English?"