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.