“Personal responsibility” is a theme frequently drawn upon by people addressing the social problems of the day, including problems that black communities face. Public figures issuing calls to action often challenge the role of the individual, although whether it works in better reaching the individuals who need to hear these messages is debatable. The bigger problem is that a message that exclusively focuses on personal responsibility without an accompanying clarion call for society itself to improve gives us only half of the answer.
No one exemplifies this problem more than Bill Cosby, who recently dictated an editorial to the New York Post in which he said, “There is this situation where people tend to think that we are all victims. Victim meaning somebody else is doing this to us. That’s not true.” The former star of The Cosby Show is known for making controversial statements directed to the black community. In 2004, at an address at an NAACP gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Cosby said “the lower-economic and middle-economic people are not holding up their end in this deal,” i.e., not following through on all of the hard-earned opportunities available in our time. While his statement upset many, it actually led to a constructive dialogue on black class differences and Professor Michael Eric Dyson wrote an entire book to unpack the issues that Cosby raised. But this time around, Cosby lays all the blame at the feet of black Americans who, he says, suffer from “a plague called apathy.”
He goes on to suggest that parents need to make better choices for their children, including not buying them sugary drinks. Otherwise, they pass the bad habits and health risks down. “It becomes a term of apathy because people say my father had it, my aunt had it. People then ask you, ‘What your mother die of?’ ‘Diabetes.’ ‘Grandmother?’ ‘Diabetes.’ These things don’t have to happen if you make the correct choice.” Cosby is completely justified in tackling the issue of Type 2 diabetes in children. But what about addressing the pressing issue of food deserts and the general lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables that disproportionately affect densely populated urban areas? To attack only half of a problem is no solution.
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Then there is education. “Interview some schoolteachers. How many parents, on parent-teacher day, actually show up?” Cosby asks. “Not to Dunbar or some school where people are saying they want their child to become an engineer or philosopher or whatever else that requires one to do some homework. Go to a school where people are not doing well. How many parents show up?”
Of course parents should be more active in schools. There is no need to rehash the statistics that outline the educational-achievement gap in the black community. But the issue of education revolves not just around what the parents do, but what our elected officials and people in authority do as well. In the midst of massive school closings, where is the call for social responsibility for the city and state officials? In Cosby’s native Philadelphia, 23 schools are being closed to alleviate a deficit in the city budget. This negatively affects the involved and uninvolved parents, and of course the children who attended those schools. It is hard to say yes to education when our society doesn’t place enough value in it to keep the schools open.
To be fair, Cosby is not alone in thinking that black people in America need to do better. His views gained a great deal of traction, and elected officials have taken to challenging the black community to improve. Just last month, President Obama gave a speech at Morehouse in which he said, “There are some things, as black men, that we can only do for ourselves.” The problem is that such exhortations can embolden others to do the same, with much less understanding, like Gene Marks’ offensive post on Forbes called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid,” which completely ignored the structural and institutional problems that black youth have to contend with.
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There are a great deal of problems in black America and our American society in general. But if Cosby is really interested in combating apathy, it’s important for him to realize that there are larger, outside forces that can cause a sense of hopelessness in affected areas. Without a total picture of what certain communities have to contend with, Cosby’s supposedly well-meaning advice is not just tone-deaf but useless as well.
Polite is an award-winning blogger and author of the chapbook The Poetic Ruminations of Mr. Born Nice. More of his political and social commentary may be found at his blog, politeonsociety.com