Tracknum: 39781085665960
Pubdate: Thu, 27 May 2004
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A31
Copyright: 2004 The Washington Post Company
Author: Theodore Shaw
Note: The writer is director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal 
Defense and Educational Fund Inc.
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


Bill Cosby is a beloved icon. So it gave me no pleasure to follow him
to the stage at Constitution Hall on May 17, the 50th anniversary of
Brown v. Board of Education, after listening to his remarks.

For his philanthropy toward institutions that have worked on behalf of
African Americans, Cosby was being honored by the three institutions,
including the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, that share
responsibility for winning the Supreme Court decision that broke the
back of American apartheid. In his acceptance remarks, however, Cosby
told the well-heeled, black-tie audience that "the lower economic
people are not holding up their end in this deal."

Unlike the story of Brown, Cosby suggested, this was not about what
white people are doing to us; it was about what black people are
failing to do for themselves. His remarks excoriated poor black people
for their failure to actively raise their children, to teach
"knuckleheads" proper English and for spending hundreds of dollars for
sneakers while refusing to spend $200 for the educational package
"Hooked on Phonics." Cosby also spoke of "people getting shot in the
back of the head [for stealing] a piece of poundcake, and then we run
out and we are outraged." And he wondered why more people from these
communities were not incarcerated. "God is tired of you," he quipped,
"and so am I." I knew, even before I reached the stage, that Cosby's
comments would be hijacked by those who pretend that racism is no
longer an issue and who view poor black people with disdain. So,
departing from my own prepared remarks, I embraced the notion of
personal responsibility, at the same time calling attention to
problems faced by African Americans that are not self-inflicted.

One example is the now infamous Tulia, Tex., drug sting. With no
drugs, no money and no weapons recovered, 10 percent of the black
population of this small town was arrested and convicted on the word
of one corrupt undercover police officer. The sentences ranged from 20
to 341 years. Only after the Legal Defense Fund and other lawyers
represented these individuals in post-conviction proceedings were they

Predictably, conservatives are applauding Bill Cosby for saying that
the problems of the black community stem primarily from personal
failures and moral shortcomings. But just as we in the progressive
African American community cannot countenance the demonization of poor
people, we must not cede the issue of personal responsibility to
ideological conservatives. Most poor black people struggle admirably
to raise their children well. Parents, including single mothers, work
for low wages, sometimes in multiple jobs, to support their families.
Recently Cosby recognized this in a press statement in which he
emphasized that he was not criticizing everyone in the "black lower
economic classes" but intended to issue a "call to action" and to
foster "a sense of shared responsibility and action."

Unlike much of the world, we ignore human rights protections against
discrimination on the basis of economic status. As a nation, we wage
war on poor people in this country, not on poverty. In many ways we
are a nation struggling to maintain our moral compass. Violence and
dysfunction in poor black communities are under an especially glaring
spotlight. But many of the problems Cosby addressed are largely a
function of concentrated poverty in black communities -- the legacy of
centuries of governmental and private neglect and discrimination.

Cosby's observations about the senseless violence perpetrated within
black communities are undeniable. I do not know anyone who does not
condemn it. But Amadou Diallo, shot to death in a hail of 41 bullets
by New York police, did not steal a poundcake. He and countless other
innocent black people have been killed while unarmed in communities in
which policing is driven almost entirely by a "war on drugs" that
makes all residents presumptive targets.

Following a recent conversation, Cosby and I agreed on this much: To
the extent that he is frustrated and angry about the failure of people
to be responsible parents, and about senseless crime and violence, I
stand with him; to the extent that we continue to be challenged by the
systemic issues of race and racism that the Legal Defense Fund has
confronted since the days of my predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, Bill
Cosby stands with me.

There is no either/or for anyone who truly works in the interests of
African Americans and our nation.