Race, rhetoric and the Cosby crusade

By Damion LeeNatali
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, January 21, 2005

By denouncing a street culture that emphasizes bling over books, comedian Bill Cosby has drawn criticism from those who dismiss him as just another celebrity airing his social conscience. Unfortunately, what they fail to recognize is that he's right.

Railing against promiscuous parents and their "knucklehead" children, Cosby's comments have struck a chord with parts of the black community and a raw nerve with others. By demanding change, the newly stern comedian has drawn the spotlight to the proverbial elephant in the room: After three decades of affirmative action, why do significant portions of black America still languish in crime-ridden poverty?

Of course, there's a host of answers to this controversial question, but Cosby's are probably the least savory. He blames the black street culture, one that glorifies crime while downplaying the benefits of education. He blames parents, or at least those who fail to instill values in their children. He blames black entertainers, who openly promote the lifestyle of instant gratification. In a move that is almost heretical in politically correct America, he blames blacks for their own problems.

If it were not for the fact that Cosby is black himself, he would most likely be labeled as a racist. After all, many like-minded white critics have been unfairly painted with that brush. But to hear harsh condemnations coming from such a prominent member of the black community gives many would-be critics pause, affording all of us the opportunity to examine what might be wrong with modern black culture.

Having attended an inner-city high school, the problem seemed obvious to me. Without assessing blame for the origins of this development, it can be fairly said that a large segment of America's black population does not value education in a way that would be most beneficial to it. As Cosby would have it, this is due to the fact that black culture dismisses education, and to some extent, he is correct in thinking so.

Even a casual audit of mainstream black entertainment reveals some disturbing trends. Hip-hop artists are elevated to near-divine status, while the prerequisites to the American dream (civic virtue, hard work, and education) are noticeably absent. Some blacks even report feeling pressured to abstain from academic aspirations. "Your African identity has to be defined by ignorance," one high school junior recently told Newsweek.

"Caucasians don't have that pressure."

But while it might be instinctive to blame certain facets of black culture for the lackluster performance of black students, rectifying those problems will be impossible without some form of institutional change. Simply put, abandoning black street culture will require some sort of tangible motivation.

Affirmative action has been trumpeted as a way of leveling the playing field for black students and professionals, but in many ways, it ignores the fundamental problem: Many blacks do not receive the basic kind of training that is required in the world of higher education or professional work. Thus, by the time affirmative action can really be of any use, it's much too late.

To understand why blacks are at such a disadvantage, one need look no further than the public education system. High poverty school districts are chronically under-funded (one study recently found that they receive an average of $868 less per student than their affluent counterparts). With black students entering college on such shaky educational footing, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that they will be ill-prepared for the road ahead of them.

University of California, Los Angeles law professor Richard Sander claims that blacks' lack of a solid educational foundation results in underperformance. Sander recently told National Public Radio, "About one-half of blacks end up in the bottom tenth of the class, and we find that ... it's explained by this huge credentials gap that students start law school with."

Hoping to close Sander's "credentials gap" by throwing more money at impoverished school districts smacks of na´vetÚ, but it's certainly a start. Decrepit schools and underpaid teachers are hardly a beacon of light for black students, but they cannot be expected to shift their focus toward education if our own focus isn't there to begin with. But if black students are given a substantive education in their early years, maybe the days of street culture and affirmative action could be behind us.

And the Cos could return to his day job.

Damion LeeNatali is a political science and history sophomore. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.