With Bill Cosby on the ropes, Charles Barkley steps into ‘black scold’ role

While Bill Cosby endures growing legal problems that have squelched his credibility as 'America’s Dad,' former NBA power forward Charles Barkley has gamely waded into the topic of demonstrations in Ferguson.

Dominick Reuter/Reuters/File
Hall of Fame players Charles Barkley is seen at the 2012 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in Springfield, Massachusetts.

As Bill Cosby faces unsettling sexual abuse allegations, it seems as if former NBA power forward “Sir” Charles Barkley has stepped into a void and taken on a new role: the black scold.

While Mr. Cosby endures growing legal problems that have squelched his credibility as “America’s Dad,” the Alabama-born Mr. Barkley has gamely waded into the topic of demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., over the death of a black teenager by a white police officer.

On Tuesday, Barkley defended the police and called some of the black demonstrators “scumbags” for looting and committing arson. The comments come after other recent statements where Barkley chided black NFL players for shunning Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for “acting white”; likened black culture to a bucket of crabs, where those trying to escape are quickly pulled back down; and noted that if NFL running back Adrian Peterson goes to jail for child abuse for using a switch on his son, then “every black parent in the South is going to be in jail.”

To be sure, such pugilistic commentary may be part of an ex-athlete’s bluster and is perhaps intended as a message of tough love from inside black America. Throughout his career, Barkley has never been shy about offering his opinion.

But critics say Barkley’s scolding feeds into arguments from white conservatives who don’t see or acknowledge that part of black people’s problem is a long history of Anglo-Saxon oppression – issues that continue to rear up in places like Ferguson. Critics also find Barkley's commentary slightly eccentric and ill-informed.

He “is now that former athlete who specializes in pseudo-intellectual social commentary,” Yesha Callahan writes on the Afrocentric Root website.

Yet the evolution of the black scold – a group that includes leaders like Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, the stereotype-skewering comedian Chris Rock, and even President Obama – could also count as a step forward, in a debate where those who challenge mores in the black community are themselves often scolded for being an “Uncle Tom.”

Barkley’s exhortations, at the very least, “force us to look squarely at some things many find awkward ... the truth is somewhere in the middle,” writes Ron Christie, author of “Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur,” in The Daily Beast. (Mr. Christie is black.)

Until news of multiple allegations of sexual assault, Cosby, a pioneer in integrated popular entertainment with his role in “I Spy” in the 1960s, had transformed his 1980s-era Cliff Huxtable persona into a more aggressive arbiter of African-American behavior.

His 2004 "pound cake” speech is where he first took black culture head-on, chiding: "Who are these sick black people and where did they come from and why haven't they been parented to shut up?"

In 2007, Cosby spoke to a crowd of all black men at Detroit's St Paul Church of God in Christ. "We are not a pitiful race of people," he said. "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...."

Given Cosby’s current troubles, “You get dissonance so intense it's disorienting” when considering such admonitions to the broader black community, Jenée Desmond-Harris writes on the website Vox.

Barkley has not set himself up as a role model and has never claimed to speak for anybody but himself. Yet his well-known pate, Southern charm, and willingness to answer any question have wedged him into the post-Ferguson debate in a way that's struck a nerve.

Defending his use of the term “scumbags,” Barkley told CNN on Wednesday that “when you’re looting people’s property, that’s what you are.”

Barkley also acknowledged America's race legacy in the CNN interview. Peaceful protesting, he said, is OK because “we have a racial issue in this country. We’ve always had a racial issue in this country.”

Conservatives have rallied to Barkley’s side, applauding him for having the courage to break from the black political ranks to speak truth to power.

Yet many social commentators have criticized Barkley for failing to understand the cultural and historical legacy of black people – including, they say, the slave-era roots for using a switch, the prison-esque fashion of saggy pants, and the empowerment of abandoning Anglo-Saxon names for colorful African-sounding names, the kind which Cosby once criticized: “They don’t know a damned thing about Africa. Wit’ names like Shaniqua, Taliqua, and Muhammad ... and all of ’em in jail.”  

But if Barkley has become the new black scold in chief, his court includes other famous African-Americans who have challenged what some call “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for blacks.

Mr. Obama, in particular, has said there’s “an element of truth” to criticisms that black people attack other blacks who try to get ahead in the world. “The notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go,” the president said in July.

But Barkley and Obama appear to diverge on Ferguson. While calling for rule of law, Obama also said last week that heated protests are understandable in a country where poor black people “aren’t making these problems up.”

While Barkley’s blunt critiques may have the ring of truth to some, his sentiments are ultimately hurtful to African-Americans, some critics say, because they play too easily into stereotypes that can be exploited for political purposes.

“What's much more fascinating than Barkley's statements is that our national and political culture always seems to have a place for the black scold, along with broad and ill-informed generalities about black culture and behavior,” writes Nia-Malika Henderson in The Washington Post. “There is no such thing as the white scold.”

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