At St. Paul Church of God in Christ in Detroit, I watched Bill Cosby summon his inner Malcolm X. It was a hot July evening, and Cosby was speaking to an audience of black men. Some were there with their sons. Some were there in wheelchairs. The audience was packed tight, rows of folding chairs extended beyond the wooden pews to capture the overflow. The church was in full call-and-response mode, punctuating Cosby's punch lines with laughter, applause, or cries of "Teach, black man! Teach!"
"Understand me," Cosby said, his face contorted and clenched like a fist. "Men? Men? Men! Where are you, men?"
Audience: "Right here!"
Cosby had come to Detroit aiming to grab the city's black men by their collars and shake them out of the torpor that has left so many of them — like so many of their peers across the country — undereducated, overincarcerated, and underrepresented in the ranks of active fathers. No women were in the audience.
"Men, if you want to win, we can win," Cosby said. "We are not a pitiful race of people. We are a bright race, who can move with the best. But we are in a new time, where people are behaving in abnormal ways and calling it normal …
"A little girl in Camden, jumping rope, shot through the mouth. Grandmother saw it out the window. And people are waiting around for Jesus to come, when Jesus is already within you."
Cosby, 70, was wearing his standard uniform — dark sunglasses, loafers, a sweat suit emblazoned with the seal of an institution of higher learning. He was preaching from the book of black self-reliance, a gospel that he has spent the past four years carrying across the country in a series of events that he bills as "call-outs." "My problem," Cosby told the audience, "is I'm tired of losing to white people."
From Birmingham to Cleveland and Baltimore, at churches and colleges, Cosby has been telling thousands of black Americans that racism in America is omnipresent but that it can't be an excuse to stop striving. As Cosby sees it, the antidote to racism is not rallies, protests, or pleas, but strong families and communities. Instead of focusing on some abstract notion of equality, he argues, blacks need to cleanse their culture, embrace personal responsibility, and reclaim the traditions that fortified them in the past. Driving Cosby's tough talk about values and responsibility is a vision starkly different from Martin Luther King's gauzy, all-inclusive dream: It's an America of competing powers, and a black America that is no longer content to be the weakest of the lot.
It's heady stuff, especially coming from the man white America remembers as a sitcom star and affable pitchman for E.F. Hutton, Kodak, and Jell-O Pudding Pops. And Cosby's race-based crusade is particularly jarring now. Across the country, as black politics has become more professionalized, the rhetoric of race is giving way to the rhetoric of standards and results.
Indeed, we are now enjoying a moment of national self-congratulation over racial progress, with a black man running for president as the very realization of King's dream. Barack Obama defied efforts by the Clinton campaign to pigeonhole him as a "black" candidate and until recently succeeded in casting himself instead as the symbol of a society that has moved beyond lazy categories of race.
Black America does not entirely share the euphoria, though. The civil-rights generation is exiting the American stage — not in a haze of nostalgia but in a cloud of gloom, troubled by the persistence of racism, the apparent weaknesses of the generation following in its wake, and the seeming indifference of much of the country to black America's fate. In that climate, Cosby's gospel of discipline, moral reform and self-reliance offers a way out — a promise that one need not cure America of its original sin in order to succeed. Racism may not be extinguished, but it can be beaten.
Has Dr. Huxtable, the head of one of America's most beloved television households, seen the truth: that the dream of integration should never supplant the pursuit of self-respect; that blacks should worry more about judging themselves and less about whether whites are judging them on the content of their character? Or has he lost his mind?
• • •
From the moment he registered in the American popular consciousness, as the Oxford-educated Alexander Scott in the NBC adventure series I Spy, Cosby proffered the idea of an America that transcended race. The series, which started in 1965, was the first weekly show to feature an African- American in a lead role, but it rarely factored race into dialogue or plots. Race was also mostly inconspicuous in Cosby's performances as a hugely popular stand-up comedian. "I don't spend my hours worrying how to slip a social message into my act," Cosby told Playboy in 1969.
Yet in his crowning artistic and commercial achievement — The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992 — blackness was never absent from the show or from Bill Cosby. Plots involved black artists like Stevie Wonder or Dizzy Gillespie. The Huxtables' home was decorated with the works of black artists. Behind the scenes, Cosby hired the Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint to make sure that the show never trafficked in stereotypes and that it depicted blacks in a dignified light.
Cosby's anger and frustration erupted into public view during an NAACP awards ceremony in Washington in 2004 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. At that moment, the shades of mortality and irrelevance seemed to be drawing over the civil rights generation. Its matriarchs, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, would be dead within two years. The NAACP's membership rolls had been shrinking.Other movement leaders were drifting into self-parody.
That night, Cosby was one of the last honorees to take the podium. He began by noting that although civil rights activists had opened the door for black America, young people today, instead of stepping through, were stepping backward. "No longer is a person embarrassed because they're pregnant without a husband," he told the crowd. "No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child."
There was cheering as Cosby went on. Perhaps sensing that he had the crowd, he grew looser. "The lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people are not holding their end in this deal," he told the audience.
Cosby disparaged activists who charge the criminal justice system with racism. "These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake," Cosby said. "Then we all run out and are outraged: 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else. And I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, 'If you get caught with it, you're going to embarrass your mother.' "
Then he attacked African-American naming traditions, and the style of dress among young blacks: "Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people. They are showing you what's wrong. … What part of Africa did this come from?
"We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don't know a damned thing about Africa — with names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail."
About then, people began to walk out of the auditorium and cluster in the lobby. There was still cheering, but some guests milled around and wondered what had happened. Some thought old age had gotten the best of Cosby. The mood was one of shock.
After what has come to be known as "the Pound Cake speech" — it has its own Wikipedia entry — Cosby came under attack from various quarters of the black establishment.
But Cosby's rhetoric played well in black barbershops, churches and backyard barbecues, where a unique brand of conservatism still runs strong. Outsiders may have heard haranguing in Cosby's language and tone. But much of black America heard instead the possibility of changing their communities without having to wait on the consciences and attention spans of policymakers who might not have their interests at heart. Shortly after Cosby took his Pound Cake message on the road, I wrote an article denouncing him as an elitist. When my father, a former Black Panther, read it, he upbraided me for attacking what he saw as a message of black empowerment. Cosby's argument has resonated with the black mainstream for just that reason.
• • •
The split between Cosby and critics mirrors not only America's broader conservative/liberal split but black America's own historic intellectual divide. Cosby's most obvious antecedent is Booker T. Washington. At the turn of the 20th century, Washington married a defense of the white South with a call for black self-reliance and became the most prominent black leader of his day. After Washington's death, in 1915, the black conservative tradition he had fathered found a permanent and natural home in the emerging ideology of Black Nationalism. Marcus Garvey, its patron saint, implicitly endorsed segregation not as an olive branch to whites but as a statement of black supremacy.
Garvey argued that blacks had rendered themselves unworthy of the white man's respect. Decades later, Malcolm X echoed that sentiment, faulting blacks for failing to take charge of their destinies.
Black conservatives like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, in general have upheld a core of beliefs laid out by Garvey almost a century ago: a skepticism of (white) government as a mediating force in the "Negro problem," a strong belief in the singular will of black people, and a fixation on a supposedly glorious black past.
Those beliefs also animate Come On People, the manifesto that Cosby and Poussaint published last fall. Although it does not totally dismiss government programs, the book mostly advocates solutions from within as a cure for black America's dismal vital statistics. "Once we find our bearings," they write, "we can move forward, as we have always done, on the path from victims to victors." Come On People is heavy on black pride ("no group of people has had the impact on the culture of the whole world that African-Americans have had, and much of that impact has been for the good"), and heavier on the idea of the Great Fall — the theory, in this case, that post-Jim Crow blacks have lost touch with the cultural traditions that enabled them to persevere through centuries of oppression.
"For all the woes of segregation, there were some good things to come out of it," Cosby and Poussaint write. "One was that it forced us to take care of ourselves."
The notion of the Great Fall, and the attendant theory that segregation gave rise to some "good things," are the stock-in-trade of what Christopher Alan Bracey, a law professor at Washington University, calls (in his book, Saviors or Sellouts) the "organic" black conservative tradition: conservatives who favor hard work and moral reform over protests and government intervention, but whose black-nationalist leanings make them anathema to the Heritage Foundation and Rush Limbaugh. When political strategists argue that the Republican Party is missing a huge chance to court the black community, they are thinking of this mostly male bloc — the old guy in the barbershop, the grizzled Pop Warner coach, the retired Vietnam vet, the drunk uncle at the family reunion. He votes Democratic, not out of any love for abortion rights or progressive taxation, but because he feels — in fact, he knows — that the modern-day GOP draws on the support of people who hate him. This is the audience that flocks to Cosby: culturally conservative black Americans who are convinced that integration, and to some extent the entire liberal dream, robbed them of their natural defenses.
Blacks are 13 percent of the population, yet black men account for 49 percent of America's murder victims and 41 percent of the prison population. The teen birth rate for blacks is 63 per 1,000, more than double the rate for whites. In 2005, black families had the lowest median income of any ethnic group measured by the Census, making only 61 percent of the median income of white families.
Most troubling is a recent study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which concluded that the rate at which blacks born into the middle class in the 1960s backslid into poverty or near-poverty (45 percent) was three times that of whites — suggesting that the advances of even some of the most successful cohorts of black America remain tenuous at best.
The rise of the organic black conservative tradition is also a response to America's retreat from its second attempt at Reconstruction. Blacks have watched as the courts have weakened affirmative action, arguably the country's greatest symbol of state-sponsored inclusion. They've seen a fraudulent war on drugs that, judging by the casualties, looks like a war on black people. They've seen the utter failures of school busing and housing desegregation, as well as the horrors of Katrina. The result is a broad distrust of government as the primary tool for black progress.
In response to these perceived failures, many black activists have turned their efforts inward. When Cosby came to St. Paul Church in Detroit, one local judge got up and urged Cosby and other black celebrities to donate more money to advance the cause. "I didn't fly out here to write a check," Cosby retorted. "I'm not writing a check in Houston, Detroit, or Philadelphia. Leave these athletes alone. All you know is Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson. Forget about a check … This is how we lost to the white man. 'Judge said Bill Cosby is gonna write a check, but until then … ' "
Instead of waiting for handouts or outside help, Cosby argues, disadvantaged blacks should start by purging their own culture of noxious elements like gangsta rap, a favorite target. Cosby's rhetoric on culture echoes — and amplifies — a swelling strain of black opinion: Last November's Pew study reported that 71 percent of blacks feel that rap is a bad influence.
• • •
The shift in focus from white racism to black culture is not as new as some social commentators make it out to be. Black conservatives have been dipping into this well of lost black honor since the turn of the 20th century. On the one hand, vintage black nationalists have harked back to a golden age of black Africa, where mighty empires sprawled and everyone was a king. Meanwhile, populist black conservatives like Cosby point to pre-1968 black America as an era when blacks were united in the struggle: Men were men, and a girl who got pregnant without getting married would find herself bundled off to Grandpa's farm.
What both visions share is a sense that black culture in its present form is bastardized and pathological. What they also share is a foundation in myth. Black people are not the descendants of kings. We are — and I say this with big pride — the progeny of slaves. If there's any majesty in our struggle, it lies not in fairy tales but in those humble origins and the great distance we've traveled since. Ditto for the dreams of a separate but noble past. Cosby's, and much of black America's, conservative analysis flattens history and smooths over the wrinkles that have characterized black America since its inception.
Indeed, a century ago, the black brain trust was pushing the same rhetoric that Cosby is pushing today. It was concerned that slavery had essentially destroyed the black family and was obsessed with seemingly the same issues — crime, wanton sexuality, and general moral turpitude — that Cosby claims are recent developments.
In particular, Cosby's argument — that much of what haunts young black men originates in postsegregation black culture — doesn't square with history. As early as the 1930s, sociologists were concerned that black men were falling behind black women. Beyond the apocryphal notion that black culture was once a fount of virtue, there's still the charge that culture is indeed the problem.
"I don't know how to measure culture. I don't know how to test its effects, and I'm not sure anyone else does," says the Georgetown economist Harry Holzer. "There's a liberal story that limited opportunities, and barriers, lead to employment problems and criminal records, but then there's another story that has to do with norms, behaviors, and oppositional culture. You can't prove the latter statistically, but it still might be true."
Holzer thinks that both arguments contain truth and that one doesn't preclude the other. Fair enough. Suffice it to say, though, that the evidence supporting structural inequality is compelling. In 2001, a researcher sent out black and white job applicants in Milwaukee, randomly assigning them a criminal record. The researcher concluded that a white man with a criminal record had about the same chance of getting a job as a black man without one. Three years later, researchers produced the same results in New York under more rigorous conditions.
• • •
Last summer, I watched Cosby give a moving commencement speech to a group of Connecticut inmates who'd just received their GEDs. Before the speech, at eight in the morning, Cosby quizzed correctional officials on the conditions and characteristics of their inmate population. I wished, then, that my 7-year-old son could have seen Cosby there, to take in the same basic message that I endeavor to serve him every day — that manhood means more than virility and strut, that it calls for discipline and dutiful stewardship. That the ultimate fate of black people lies in their own hands, not in the hands of their antagonists. That as an African-American, he has a duty to his family, his community, and his ancestors.
But Cosby often pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of American citizens for their rights. He chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal justice system, despite solid evidence that the criminal justice system needs reform. His historical amnesia — his assertion that many of the problems that pervade black America are of a recent vintage — is simply wrong. I'd take my son to see Bill Cosby, to hear his message, to revel in its promise and optimism. But afterward, he and I would have a very long talk.
In a November Pew survey, 85 percent of all African-American respondents considered him a "good influence" on the black community, above Barack Obama (76 percent) and second only to Oprah Winfrey (87 percent).
Part of what drives Cosby's activism, and reinforces his message, is the rage that lives in all African-Americans, a collective feeling of disgrace that borders on self-hatred. As the comedian Chris Rock put it in one of his infamous routines, "Everything white people don't like about black people, black people really don't like about black people. … " (Rock stopped performing the routine when he noticed that his white fans were laughing a little too hard.) Liberalism, with its pat logic and focus on structural inequities, offers no balm for this sort of raw pain. Like the people he preaches to, Cosby has grown tired of hanging his head.
Cosby is fond of saying that sacrifices of the '60s weren't made so that rappers and young people could repeatedly use the word n-----. But that's exactly why they were made. After all, chief among all individual rights awarded Americans is the right to be mediocre, crass, and juvenile — in other words, the right to be human. But Cosby is aiming for something superhuman — twice as good, as the elders used to say — and his homily to a hazy black past seems like an effort to redeem something more than the present.
Last summer, Cosby met me for lunch in the West Village. Toward the end, in a long, rambling monologue, Cosby told me, "If you looked at me and said, 'Why is he doing this? Why right now?,' you could probably say, 'He's having a resurgence of his childhood.' What do I need if I am a child today? I need people to guide me. I need the possibility of change. I need people to stop saying I can't pull myself up by my own bootstraps. They say that's a myth. But these other people have their mythical stories — why can't we have our own?"
This article is adapted and condensed from the May issue of Atlantic Monthly. Copyright 2008 the Atlantic Monthly Group, as first published in the Atlantic Monthly. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.