It is a bit ironic that "America’s Dad" Bill Cosby has morphed from an equalizing figure for middle-class America into a divisive figure within Black America’s intelligentsia. This shift is largely a result of reactions to Cosby’s May 2004 speech at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) event marking the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. During this speech and the speaking tour that followed it, Cosby asserted that the problems of Black America should no longer be blamed on racism, inequality, or America’s past. Instead, he claims, "the lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding up their end in this deal" (p. 141). Cosby’s comments have altered the discourse within and around Black America, as critiques of poor Blacks by Black elites have moved from behind closed doors to the forefront of national discourse.
In Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? Michael Eric Dyson pushes back against the "bitter attacks Cosby has launched [that] dishonor the incredible strength of character of millions of poor blacks" (p. 167). His book weaves together social commentary, evidence-based analysis of Cosby’s comments, and exaltation of the poor Blacks at whom Cosby’s words were directed. Central to Dyson’s argument in this book is the idea that Cosby has built up years of cultural capital and credibility while ignoring race to establish a platform for himself that he is using to lambaste and criticize poor Blacks rather than defend them. Dyson’s primary concern is not that the poor are criticized in Cosby’s comments, but that the criticism has a harshness and an edge to it that indicates a lack of patience and, perhaps more importantly, a lack of understanding of the plight of poor Blacks in America.
Dyson’s book is a point-by-point investigation of the merits and logic of the various planks of Cosby’s purportedly anti-poor stance. In the preface and introduction, Dyson presents a dichotomy between what he calls the Afristrocracy, "upper-middle-class blacks and the black elite who rain down fire and brimstone upon poor blacks," and the Ghettocracy, "single mothers on welfare, single working mothers and fathers, poor fathers, married poor and working folk, the incarcerated, and a battalion of impoverished children" (pp. xiii–xiv). He suggests that the Afristrocracy has berated the Ghettocracy before, and that Cosby’s diatribe is only the most recent incarnation of Black elite’s disgust with the poor
Chapter 1 presents a theme that Dyson advances elsewhere — that Cosby’s decision to enter the fray of racial politics at the end of his career is surprising, given his decades of purposefully ignoring racial controversy while taking advantage of his racelessness. From the beginning of Cosby’s stand-up comedy career he chose to "discard the use of color," and he successfully downplayed race in order to explore other issues in his sitcoms I Spy and The Cosby Show (p. 17). Dyson argues that the success of The Cosby Show "provided the most influential vehicle yet to promulgate [Cosby’s] color-blind politics" (p. 29). In chapter 1, Dyson also suggests an interesting continuum of Blackness. At one end are "intentional Blacks," such as Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and Ella Baker, individuals who purposefully engage in work to improve the lives of Blacks. At the other end of the continuum are "accidental Blacks," those who deliberately downplay and ignore their race while benefiting from that color blindness, like Bill Cosby and Clarence Thomas. Dyson suggests convincingly that Cosby’s comments represent a drastic and surprisingly timed shift away from his early accidental Blackness to intentional Blackness. Dyson argues that "by attacking the poor, Cosby has made tragic use of his public capital" in speaking "against some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, who are in need of support and love, not humiliation and belittlement " (pp. 52–53).
Dyson sets forth his most searing and powerful argument in chapter 2, confronting the views on education that Cosby set forth in his NAACP speech, where he blasted poor Blacks for what he perceives as their lack of effort, their refusal to use proper English, and their general laziness. Dyson combats these views by citing Cosby’s own meandering educational path, which included dropping out of high school, failing to complete Temple University, and controversially obtaining a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst based on research of his "Fat Albert" cartoon. In addition to highlighting inconsistencies in his arguments, Dyson challenges Cosby’s viewpoints by drawing on documented educational inequalities, evidence of the drastic resegregation of U.S. schools, and Cosby’s 1976 dissertation, in which he decried the numerous problems U.S. schools posed for Black children. Furthermore, Dyson delves into a current debate in education using recent empirical research on Black achievement and motivation to argue against Cosby’s claim that Black youth refuse to achieve because they see academic success as acting White.
In chapter 3, Dyson argues against Cosby’s critique of Blacks’ wearing what he perceives as inappropriate clothing and giving their children conspicuous names by offering historical perspectives that suggest that these actions are illustrative of Black resistance against White culture. In chapter 4, Dyson investigates Cosby’s personal life, particularly the fractious relationship with his daughter and the possibility that he fathered illegitimate children. He compares the "tough-love" relationship with his daughter Erinn with his tough-love approach to the Black lower classes. Dyson uses this relationship as an allegory for "America’s Dad’s" dealings with poor Blacks, and he argues that "more empathy . . . is surely called for when addressing a population of severely underprivileged folk" (p. 157).
Chapter 5 presents an interesting discussion of the implications of Cosby’s comments on the blame game, as Dyson asks where America should place the blame for whatever problems exist in Black America. Cosby’s speech places primary responsibility with the poor, while Dyson argues that this "position is dangerous because it aggressively ignores White society’s responsibility in creating the problems he wants the poor to fix on their own" (p. 182). He believes that Cosby’s current role in empowering White conservatives to ignore the problems of the poor should be no surprise, because he did much the same thing with The Cosby Show, which "reinforced harmful conservative political beliefs" (p. 185). However, Dyson recognizes a different side of Cosby from his dissertation and previous comments, which reveal a Cosby who was much more apt to side with and understand the plight of the poor than the public Cosby we are now faced with. At the very least Dyson wants Cosby to discuss the complexities and complications of the situation of the poor in the United States. Dyson writes, "To speak of personal responsibility without understanding its relationship to the social order is to miscalculate what we may reasonably expect from human beings in a given situation" (p. 213). He closes the chapter with a suggestion that Cosby "explore his gifts for comedy and leave the social analysis and race leadership to those better suited to the task" (p. 233).
Dyson’s book is an important contribution to the debate on poverty in Black America that was heretofore staged behind closed doors in the Black community. This work embraces the poor and defends their humanity, arguing that while there certainly is a place for personal responsibility, one should not cast the blame entirely on the poor, lest they be crushed under the weight of that responsibility.