Cosby and black underclass: a challenge, not an indictment

Bill Cosby's vitae reads like the quintessential American success story that it is. His transcendence from working-class roots in the slums of Philadelphia to revered entertainer, educator, businessman, and philanthropist is the classic Horatio Alger story: The very essence of what American dreams and myths are made of.

Perhaps that's why Mr. Cosby's recent comments about some of the black underclass during his speech at a 50th anniversary commemoration of Brown v. Board of Education continues to reverberate in the black community.

Some blacks are singing Cosby's praises, and others are still slamming him for saying, "Ladies and gentleman, the lower economic people are not holding up their end of this deal.... These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids - $500 sneakers, for what? And yet they won't spend $200 for 'Hooked on Phonics.' "

Cosby's Hollywood, business, and philanthropic achievements - and his doctorate in education - give him the credibility and forum to initiate a necessary and troubling conversation about the black underclass.

The beginning of the 21st century for black Americans is Dickensian in this sense: These are surely both the best and worst of times for African-Americans. Indeed, the black middle class and upper-middle class have increased exponentially. There are now black folk who are rich and even super rich, like billionaire Cosby - but simultaneously there are legions of blacks being left far behind in inner cities.

Life in the ghetto is inarguably forbidding - schools are failing and the streets are deadly. And it is expensive - everything from groceries to insurance cost more than in other places. Most who are able to escape indigence will not leapfrog from poverty to the patrician class - like Cosby. But there is the hope that one can become solidly middle class: own a home and send one's children to college.

Although Cosby's comments about the black underclass are biting, it is folly to dismiss him as an out-of-touch black billionaire.

Moreover, we in the black community must not all allow fear to censor our discussions of the black underclass, because of embarrassment or the possibility that some whites may misuse sound bites of our discussion for their own agenda.

Rather than an indictment of some blacks, Cosby's commentary is a clarion call to blacks of all class levels that there is still much to be accomplished. And none of us has the luxury of calling it quits. Cosby is challenging black America not to be a conspirator in its own demise.

When a young black person fails to earn a high school diploma, cannot speak standard English, has gold designer teeth, and adopts prison-style clothing, that person is actively working to guarantee that employability and economic security elude him.

Misguided people like this are foiled by their own ignorance, inarticulateness, and aberrant appearance. They're not upholding some venerable inner-city culture, but are working hand in glove with racism and discrimination to secure their place on the margins of life. Moreover, the black community has become comfortable with such terms as "my baby's Mama" and "my baby's Daddy," and is more alarmed at the prospect of same-sex marriage than at the fact that as many as 70 percent of black American children are born outside the bonds of matrimony.

It is important to point out that most black people in the ghetto are not unconscious or unambitious. The great majority of blacks in the inner city are urban heroes and heroines, who work tirelessly toward being accountable for their own lives.

These champions, despite the chaos that is all around them, are the people who are most immediately and negatively impacted by those who do not value their own lives and communities.

Although there are many who have disdain for Cosby, I believe that many dissenters will eventually praise him for his boldness and concern. He's like an excellent teacher or professor, who seems unfair and oppressive, but is really the kindest person around you: It is because he loves and respects you and can see your potential that he is tough. That tough professor knows that however tough he is, life can be and often is tougher, and he simply wants you to be prepared for life's challenges. Therefore, he is caring and critical in proper proportion to help you recognize and exploit your potential - so that you do not blithely fail yourself.

It is in our interest to tune into Cosby and continue the discussion.

We in the black community who have made it are morally responsible to do what we can to help others trapped in the inner city find a way out. This gesture is not one of altruism but one of self-interest.

For like any people, we are only as strong as our weakest link.

Benin Dakar, a financial services manager, is cochair of the volunteer council of Hands on Atlanta, which promotes civic engagement and volunteer services to build community.

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