At the NAACP Brown v. Board of Education 50-year anniversary commemoration, Bill Cosby gave an off-the-cuff speech condemning poor African American youth and their parents. He criticized poor Black parents for being willing to buy $500 sneakers for their children rather than spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics. Dr. Cosby also held poor African American parents responsible for not setting the proper example for their children by speaking standard English. Poor African American youth were criticized for their use of non-standard English and the widespread adoption of “pimp culture.”
Bill Cosby’s castigating comments toward poor African Americans expose an internal pain. If we care about the African American people to any extent, we share the same pain on some level or another. Still, Cosby’s behavior in issuing such an account is as bad as that of the worst misguided Black youth whose stereotyped and caricatured behavior he universalizes.
Do we pay attention? The masses of Black children have been relegated to an inferior education by way of a system that is funded inequitably and, hence, is academically unequal. Poor Black students come from families that are poor. Have we not heard that the majority of African American youth struggle to graduate from high school, stay out of trouble, and are successful in their attempt? Are we so blinded by our own pain that we, too, will resort to the easy way out of blaming the downtrodden rather than searching for the systemic causes of the problems? No doubt too many of our youth do fall, but the question for responsible adults is, how can we strengthen the fight for a better quality of life for all of our children in every realm? Is it helpful to turn away from the faults of the system and blame instead those who are oppressed and exploited as a result of the system’s inherent problems?
Where do our youth get the notion that pimp culture is equivalent to African American culture? How is mass pimp culture cultivated and by whom? Clearly, teenage children cannot be to blame for the wide propagation of the illusion that to be Black means to embrace a popularized version of the pimp lifestyle. Is it accurate to blame rap music, or should we examine further the industry which covets only the gangsta style of rap music? Are our children being pimped out as a self-directed activity or is there an organized cultivation and promotion of pimp-ology by an industry outside of the Black community?
Bill Cosby’s remarks provided an opening for many journalists to join in his assault on poor African Americans. The rest of us need to raise our voices and scream in unison, “Wait one darn minute!” Our children are not the cause of these problems, nor are their parents. Our children need voices that defend them while demanding from them that they not become the fabricated caricature promoted in various venues.
Non-standard English as spoken by African American youth in particular, especially though not exclusively in this day and time, has an element of rebellion embedded in it. Some youth choose to speak non-standard English with each other out of a sense of revolt. They constantly create new language constructs that are not meant to flow into the world of work, though the business world sees fit to exploit them quite well. Most Black youth who speak non-standard English also speak standard English. The struggle is to expose to our youth the historic fight waged by African Americans for the right to be educated, to speak, write and read English well. Almost 20 years ago, Dr. James Jackson presented such an argument and made the point quite eloquently.
This subcultural context is worth considering, as well as the influence of Southern dialect and language survivals from the period of slavery. Cosby’s remarks promote self-blame and self-loathing, the main effect of which is self-destruction in one form or another.
We need to delve deeper. We cannot take the easy way out. We have to fight for our children and their parents to have a full quality of life that includes union wage jobs, real quality public education, heath care, housing, and recreation. If this struggle is not victorious, the human species will be destroyed. Please, Dr. Cosby, join us!
Dee Myles is a Chicago activist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.