Race Resurfaces

NAACP, Cosby controversies play useful role

One of the side effects of a nation concerned with just a few big issues, is that other important matters get scant attention.

It's taken historic milestones like the 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education in May to help bring one of America's most fundamental challenges - race - back into public debate.

This week, as Iraq and the intelligence failures that led to that war continued to dominate the news, issues of vital significance to African-Americans - and thus to all Americans - again gained a foothold. The path to prominence was via the controversy surrounding the annual meeting of the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.

There's nothing like controversy to generate headlines, and the one percolating at this meeting was who "dissed" whom.

The NAACP fumed that President Bush refused to address their gathering. The White House cited a scheduling conflict, but the president also admitted he didn't like the names that group had called him. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry took advantage of the dispute by telling the conference Thursday that if he is president, he will represent "all of the people" - a clear jab at his opponent.

Bill Cosby holds up a mirror

But the most anticipated speaker this week was comedian Bill Cosby. While he tickled the audience's funny bone on Tuesday, for two months he's set off a serious discussion among America's African-Americans with his no-holds-barred criticisms of poor blacks.

In May, he lit into lower-income black parents, blaming them for their kids' dropout rate, teen pregnancy, incomprehensible and foul English, and general lack of respect.

"I'm talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange [prison] suit," he said. "Where were you when he was 18 and how come you didn't know he had a pistol?" The man from the projects with a PhD in education went on to rant about the way some poor blacks talk. "I can't even talk the way these people talk - 'why you ain't,' 'where you is?' .... I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk, and then I heard the father talk."

Mr. Cosby made similar remarks again this month, his main point being that blacks have to take responsibility for their lives.

His remarks polarized African-Americans - an important reminder that this community is not to be viewed as a monolith.

Some leaders responded to Cosby with, Amen! He's speaking the truth. He's turning the mirror on us, and that's a rare and needed act. Others chided him for blaming the victim, for ignoring structural hindrances like inadequate schools and a biased justice system, and for giving whites an opportunity to say: See? It's not our fault.

And some called him out of line: a billionaire who has no understanding of poor blacks. The high-profile entertainer, they said, ought to get politically involved, ought to work on changing "the system."

But this is where his critics err. Mr. Cosby, in his own way, has been working on that change for years. Whether it was as the Dr. Huxtable role-model dad who refused to stoop to raunchiness for TV ratings, as author of a bestseller on fatherhood, or donor of millions to higher education for blacks, it's hard to find fault with his brand of activism.

Enough work to go around

That doesn't preclude others, however, from becoming politically active. Billionaire rap giant Russell Simmons, for instance, has registered 12 million new voters - black and white - in the past three years with his "Hip Hop Summits."

And that brings us to the two presidential contenders. Next week, Mr. Bush plans to address the Urban League, another civil rights group aiming to empowering blacks to "enter the economic and social mainstream." And the Kerry campaign this week announced a $2 million ad buy aimed at blacks. The question is, will the ads pander? Or will they work on the structural change that is the proper role of government?

In the few moments between stories on Iraq, terrorism, and the election, consider this: The work to be done to improve the lives of African Americans is vast, and ranges from personal responsibility, to grass-roots organizing, to structural change. It's everybody's job.

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