Legitimacy in the Black Community

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Here's an argument I just simply don't understand. Bill Cosby has become vocal of late in calling to the carpet those of his fellow black Americans who have participated in the self-destructive behavior that has popularized a form of separatism from education and hard work among a segment of African American culture, contributing toward the perpetuation of disproportional poverty among African Americans. Some have criticized him, but to their creidt Jesse Jackson and Kwesi Mfume have been willing to tolerate this message, even though it's at odds with their continuing emphasis on eternal victimhood. Mfume distinguishes between Bill Cosby's statements and those who have been saying such things for years. Why?

Bill Cosby has legitimacy, that's the one difference... He has legitimacy in the larger black community. [Cosby's] been, there, done that. He has legitimacy that the super-ultra white conservative doesn't. So when he says something, you listen differently. That's opposed to Rush Limbaugh, who has no legitimacy whatsoever in the black community - none, although he thinks he does.

I can understand his point that some people, because of their own biases, won't listen to a good argument if Rush Limbaugh says it but will if Bill Cosby does. If he's simply making a point about human nature, then I don't disagree. But that doesn't seem to be it. He really seems to be saying that Bill Cosby is worth listening to, whereas Rush Limbaugh saying the same thing is only worth dismissing. Now Rush Limbaugh isn't as smart as Bill Cosby, and he hasn't spent as much time to gain a hearing in the black community. I don't happen to like him much myself. Still, that just will mean some people will unjustly dismiss his words because they don't like him. There's something very wrong with that. If he's saying something true, those who need to hear what he has to say should be just as convicted by it and willing to change as if they heard it from Bill Cosby.

The point about human nature is right, but it's a point revealing biases in the listener. Ideally, there wouldn't be such biases. Limbaugh may not have a hearing in the black community. He may not have put in his time to earn such a hearing. Still, if what Bill Cosby is saying is right, and Mfume seems to be admitting that it is, then the people who needed to hear it should have acknowledged it long before Cosby was saying it, simply because it's true and it was being said. It shouldn't take someone who has gained a hearing in the black community for people to listen. Mfume is right that it does with some people, but that shows something about them and their inability to hear the truth and deal with it. Using one's perception of the message-bearer as an excuse not to listen, even when one knows the message is true, is the height of arrogance.

This all ignores the fact that it hasn't just been white people saying this sort of thing. Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell have been saying it for something like 20 years. As far as I can tell, they get dismissed as not really black and not having done their time the way Bill Cosby has, but the only reason I can think of for their saying that is because Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell have been saying these particular things! That's about as circular as it gets. Why is it that being successul in the sports and entertainment industry is consistent with being really black but becoming one of the most respected economists in the world or advocating policies you think to be favorable to your own people (African Americans) but that aren't popular among most of the politically active leaders of those people makes one not really black?

Some might think that Sowell and Steele were just saying these things too early, that not enough had improved enough in black-white relations and in black advancement in educational and professional circles. John McWhorter thinks this, though he bases most of his comments on things Steele had once said, just not at the right time. The problem with this is that John McWhorter, saying it now, gets the same treatment. Colin Powell and Condi Rice, who haven't even gone as far as Bill Cosby, never mind McWhorter, get treated as house slaves of Whitey. It has nothing to do with whether it's the right time. It has to do with whether it's perceived as conservative or liberal. Cosby is perceived as a liberal, regardless of what he says now, simply because he has at times advocated liberal policies. It's ok to be black and liberal, so he's ok, even if he says some things only conservatives have been saying. Powell and Rice, on the other hand, are part of a Republican administration, so even if they support affirmative action they're not really black. McWhorter didn't even appear on the scene until he started saying these things, so of course he's not really black. He's even an academic linguist, and what relevance does that sort of intellectual pursuit have for immediate black life in the United States if it's not in support of ebonics (which his criticism of was what first put him on the map).

What really gets me here, though, is the assumption that someone's being white automatically means there's no chance of ever gaining a hearing. Someone who is black has to earn it by advocating some liberal causes for years and years rather than starting out by pointing out what they see as the primary causes of the unfortunate state of affairs they see. Someone who is white is dismissed out of hand. Why? Is there no way someone who is white can gain this legitimacy? Would it take far more years and much more vocal support of liberal causes to show that a white conservative has something to say to black people? The message is the same as Bill Cosby's, and it may come from direct observance of all those factors. What if the person is married to someone who is black, who has observed those factors working themselves out in the educational system? What if the person has spent many hours teaching black students, both in a class setting and with one-on-one and group tutoring, both athletes at a Division I school and ordinary black students at that same university and at a much smaller Catholic school, with an easy comparison with black students from other countries who don't share the same cultural baggage? I've still had people dismiss my statements along the same lines as Cosby's, simply out of an assumption that I can't know real black people and think any of this stuff is true. See the comments here for some excellent examples of this.

I do think people like Cosby who do have a hearing in the African American community need to step forward and say these things, because there is a real bias against others saying this sort of thing. That doesn't excuse those who use that bias to ignore those who have been saying it for years or those who are new but are unknown except for their saying it. Dismissing something one would not dismiss if it came from someone else is a textbook case of the ad hominem fallacy.

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I think a missing dimension in your discussion is the dimension of "thereness." Yes, Cosby has advocated some liberal policies, but he's a "we," not a "they." In the reading that I've done, most Black conservatives seem to separate themselves from Black people in general. While I wouldn't even fix my lips to say that that's got anything to do with the name-calling that goes on, it certainly does not engender a person to the Black community at large and I'm not sure that the same message coming from that person would get the same hearing. It's sort of like if your wife told you you had bad breath vs. somebody who you think just doesn't like you saying the same thing. The message is the same, but I think that from a hearer's perspective, it takes on a different element. Again, not saying that it's legitimate to dismiss critique of the Black community out-of-hand because of race or political ideology, but I think a little more "we" and a little less "they" could make a difference.

At the same time, this isn't the first thing Cosby has said these types of things. Its the first time it got picked up in the mainstream press-- in a gossip column, no less. While I have my suspicions on why it happens when it happens, I'm pretty sure that all the big-name Black speakers, even the most liberal ones, have given this type of message before. I think they kill it when the camera comes on, so it won't look like they're being critical of the community, though.

What you're getting at is, again, what affects whether people will listen, not whether they should. I wasn't addressing what strategies people should use to be better heard. I was addressing the morality of only listening to people like Cosby.

What do you mean by 'should'? Try looking at it as a matter of efficiency in listening.

Practical arguments are necessarily based on assumptions, and the experiences that have helped develop these assumptions. So when it comes to judging the validity of an argument, or determing whether or not to even analyze it, there is reason to turn to the source to see what assumptions they are likely to be using, and what experiences they may be drawing from.

Bill Cosby grew up as a poor black kid, and maintained a constructive relationship with those roots as his career skyrocketed. Rush Limbaugh is a reputed white conservative hot-head known to make inflammatory claims just for the hell of it. Many of the semi-conservative blacks you pointed out were disengaged from and/or hostile towards from the poor black culture before that culture even recognized them (a point made by avery).

So if you aren't an academic and have limited time for hearing arguments about yourself, which of those are you going to listen to? The one who has a historically constructive relationship with you, the one who never saw a black guy outside of a lynch, or the ones who have been bad-mouthing you so before they even left the neighborhood?

Obviously, it's the first one. The other two might have valid arguments, but there's far better odds that they aren't taking into account assumptions that your own experience dictates. So why wade through all that BS when you have to keep three jobs, a tight kinship with your neighbors in case you lose those jobs, and the stress relief necessary to complement that lifestyle?

In this case, addressing 'should' in some academic sense is out of place. The decision to give Cosby more creed than Limbaugh is pragmatic. And if Limbaugh really was making such a good argument, you can expect someone from you side (a la Cosby) would pick it up eventually, and you can listen to it then.

Some of this is lifted from a comment responding to similar claims at Booker Rising, because I think I said it there better than I've said it here. There are two separate issues. One is whether those saying this should do more to earn a hearing. I have no trouble saying that about Rush Limbaugh. He hasn't done enough to make himself the kind of person who would be listened to. I agree with you on that.

That's not what I was talking about, though. I was talking about the moral obligation on the part of the hearers. Even if someone hasn't earned a hearing, so to speak, those who hear something that they know to be true have no free ticket out of the moral consequences of that truth simply because the messenger hasn't earned a hearing. Yet that's what Mfume seems to think he has every right to do, even to the point of denying the truth of the message simply because he doesn't like the messenger.

To be clear on how far I'd take this, consider the situation with Osama bin Laden's criticisms of American Christianity. Some of them show a gross misunderstanding of what Christianity is. He equates it with materialistic capitalism and with the American political system, neither of which the religious right isn't doing anything to discourage. Still, some of what he says about American Christianity is correct and is a criticism the biblical authors would endorse. Christians in the United States had better listen. In that sense Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were right (before they took it back) to say that 9/11 was a wakeup call to American backsliding and immorality, but they should have focused on the message to Christian leaders much like themselves rather than using it as a message not for them to learn and hear but for them to push the same issues they already had been pushing.

I mean it the same way when I say that black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume should have heard what Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele were saying and taken it to heart, altering their message accordingly. They should have said that they don't agree with everything these men say. They should have said that they don't approve of certain things these men do. (Perhaps I would disagree with them on some of this.) Yet if they are now agreeing with Bill Cosby, and they knew this all along, then they should have acknowledged it when two black Americans were saying it twenty years ago. Instead they disregarded it because they were too far right politically. I think that's morally wrong for a leader to do.

"And if Limbaugh really was making such a good argument, you can expect someone from you side (a la Cosby) would pick it up eventually, and you can listen to it then."

This is what seems strange to me. If you're smart enough to figure out that it might be a good argument but dismiss it because he's saying it, then you should be the one to repackage it. Mfume seems to be saying that he knew some things Limbaugh was saying to be right. Why let someone you view as the wrong sort to keep making points that the leaders of the community should themselves be making? It's poor leadership. It reminds me of the shepherds Ezekiel condemns in ch.34 of his prophecy for promoting and allowing injustice in their flock (as a metaphor for the leaders of Judah). Other prophets say similar things (Isaiah and Amos come to mind immediately), and Jesus says similar things about some of the leaders of his own day. I don't know about Mfume, but Jackson and Sharpton claim to be Christian leaders, so they should be taking heed to see if they're guilty of the same thing.

It's the old story. the Biblical prophets experienced it many a time. People don't want to hear words unpalatable to their consciences, actions or visions. Cosby hasn't said anything new, and the nods of Jackson and Mfume are business as usual. They nod and then will continue to support the same liberal policies that have put blacks in a hole. It's a game.

As for Thomas Sowell, I don't think anyone is more qualified to receive a "hearing" than him, from his hard scrabble days when he hadn't money for a meal, to his broken family, to his hard-won path in academia. It is due to this that Sowell in his biography specifically refuses as he says "to play Dear Abby" to anyone. He notes that he was helped along the way by many people, and that everyone's circumstances are different. What he does stress is that blacks stop doing and supporting the things that are not working.

What works is pretty clear although people don't want to apply themselves to it. But in fact millions of black West Indian immigrants are doing and have done just that, and their average income and education levels are not only above that of the average black American, but in some cases - like the second generation - surpassing the white average (See Sowell's data as far back as the 1980s). Even African immigrants and more recent mass Caribbean arrivals like Haitians are starting to move up past US blacks. They prove the "legitimacy" of Sowell's work time and time again with their backs and hands. See just one such link below in higher education of how these "wrong" type of blacks are operating.

Many speak of "legitimacy" for a hearing. Fine, but as the Biblical prophets of old showed, there is another blunter speaking now taking place. What will finally concentrate minds is the hard school of tears- the harsh lessons in imprisonment, broken homes, educational failure, etc.- that many in the black community are learning now. Like it or not, these messengers will not be easily dismissed, and they are infinitely more painful that the unpalatable words spoken by Sowell or Cosby...

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