Holding Blacks to white standards

I have refrained, until now, from commenting in my blog about another part of Bill Cosby’s story, the part where he, in essence, blames Black poverty on Black families for failing to raise their children properly.

Bill Cosby went off on another tirade against the black community Thursday [July 1, 2004], telling a room full of activists that too many black men are beating their wives while their children run around not knowing how to read or write.

Cosby made headlines in May when he upbraided some poor blacks for their grammar and accused them of squandering opportunities the civil rights movement gave them. He shot back Thursday, saying his detractors were trying in vain to hide the black community’s “dirty laundry.”[1]


There are multiple troubling aspects to this. One, frankly, is:

“He’s asking people to pull up their pants and act right,” said Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. “People are questioning, ‘Why were you unzipping yours and pulling yours down?’”[2]

Holland is, of course, referring to Cosby being a rapist and sexual assailant, a topic I’ve dealt with previously.[3] This certainly stinks of hypocrisy.

But Cosby also echoes the Moynihan Report of 1965. Charles Lemert puts it, in my view, entirely too diplomatically:

Actually, there had already been a storm of controversy over the family, incited by another of Washington’s best and brightest. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on the Negro family was intelligent and well intended. But its evidence, and argument, that the problem of American Blacks was linked to the disappearance of the Black man as head of family was read by many Blacks as white society’s racist ignorance of Black life. More than a few whites read it as confirmation of what they believed or feared was true of Black people: Blacks would not or could not sustain responsible lives necessary for good family life. Somewhere, surely, white assumptions about Black sexuality lurked not far behind.[4]

Moynihan was white. A profound problem here, one that Lemert really only barely alludes to, is that Moynihan was holding Blacks accountable to white standards. This is an inherently racist move, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., brilliantly demonstrates in recounting of the tale of a slave girl, Phyllis Wheatley, who had a talent for poetry of a high European cultural kind. Interrogated by “eighteen of Boston’s most notable citizens, . . .” in 1772, her “responses were more than sufficient to prompt the eighteen august gentlemen to compose, sign, and publish a two-paragraph ‘Attestation,’ an open letter ‘To the Publick’ that prefaces Phillis Wheatley’s book,”[5] a book that likely could not have been published otherwise. The episode also resulted in her emancipation.[6] This, it seems safe to say, could not have happened had Wheatley demonstrated high talent, say, in Black slave culture.

The problem we are facing here is the problem of colonization. It is a problem in which the colonizer not only determines who is fit for promotion, but also the standards by which that determination is to be made. It also appears in class relations between the wealthy and everyone else,[7] where it functions to preserve the position of wealthy whites in society by limiting opportunity to those who do not threaten the status quo.[8]

So the Moynihan Report embraced the status quo and, whatever its intentions, effectively functioned to help sustain white hegemony. Echoing that report, Cosby does the same.

As I write this, the problem of race relations has resurfaced in a series of police killings of Blacks. I am not particularly interested in the particulars of these cases. I am not interested in whether or not the shootings were justified. I am not even much interested in the process by which these shootings are found to be justifiable.

My interest is in the larger pattern. Police kill Blacks in disproportionate numbers.[9] They are rarely held accountable for those killings. Indeed, even when cases are brought to grand juries, which almost always indict suspects who are not police, indictments of police are extremely rare.[10] And when people demand accountability for these killings, cops respond by blaming the dead, who not only tell no tales, but cannot rise to defend themselves. And police respond by blaming politicians and protesters.[11]

This is, of course, quite different from the accountability that police and the criminal [in]justice system impose on the poor and on people of color.[12] It is much more in accordance with the accountability for torture and war crimes in the so-called war on terror. It is more in accordance with the accountability for financial fraud in the financial crisis that began in 2007. It is more in accordance with accountability for domestic spying. As Matt Taibbi writes of the Eric Garner case,

That was economic regulation turned lethal, a situation made all the more ridiculous by the fact that we no longer prosecute the countless serious economic crimes committed in this same city. A ferry ride away from Staten Island, on Wall Street, the pure unmolested freedom to fleece whoever you want is considered the sacred birthright of every rake with a briefcase.[13]

And Cosby wants to hold Blacks to white standards. Even without the rapes, there’s something terribly, terribly sick about this.

  1. [1]Associated Press, “Cosby berates blacks for abuse, failure as parents,” NBC News, July 2, 2004, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5345290/ns/us_news-life/t/cosby-berates-blacks-abuse-failure-parents/
  2. [2]Jesse J. Holland, “Cosby’s criticisms of poor blacks come back to haunt him,” Grio, December 23, 2014, http://thegrio.com/2014/12/23/bill-cosby-black-community/
  3. [3]David Benfell, “I will say it forthrightly and without qualification: Bill Cosby is a rapist,” Not Housebroken, November 24, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=6953
  4. [4]Charles Lemert, “Will the Center Hold? 1963-1979,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 375-376.
  5. [5]Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “‘Race’ as the Trope of the World,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 522.
  6. [6]Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “‘Race’ as the Trope of the World,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 521-526.
  7. [7]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  8. [8]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  9. [9]Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones and Eric Sagara, “Deadly Force, in Black and White,” ProPublica, October 10, 2014, http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white
  10. [10]Ben Casselman, “It’s Incredibly Rare For A Grand Jury To Do What Ferguson’s Just Did,” FiveThirtyEight, November 24, 2014, http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/ferguson-michael-brown-indictment-darren-wilson/; Trevor Timm, “If Eric Garner’s killer can’t be indicted, what cop possibly could? It’s time to fix grand juries,” Guardian, December 4, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/04/eric-garner-indicted-cop-grand-juries-video-evidence
  11. [11]Tom Hays and Colleen Long, “Police: Chokehold Victim Complicit in Own Death,” ABC News, December 5, 2014, http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/police-cases-stir-national-protests-debate-27383589
  12. [12]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  13. [13]Matt Taibbi, “The Police in America Are Becoming Illegitimate,” Rolling Stone, December 5, 2014, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-police-in-america-are-becoming-illegitimate-20141205

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