Friday, July 21, 2006

Cosby on Poverty

I had thought that enough time had passed that Bill Cosby would no longer be subjected to screeds accusing him of being unfair to the African American poor. Wrong. Michael Eric Dyson just can't stop pouring it on.
By convincing poor blacks that their lot in life is purely of their own making, Cosby draws on harsh conservative ideas that overlook the big social factors that continue to reinforce poverty: dramatic shifts in the economy, low wages, chronic underemployment, job and capital flight, downsizing and outsourcing, and crumbling inner-city schools.

None of these can be overcome by the good behavior of poor blacks.
Dyson claims that the problem is that Bill Cosby is looking only at individual choice, while disregarding societal issues which affect those choices. But couldn't it be said of Dyson that his arguments minimize the importance of individual choice while holding greater society responsible for poverty? Is there any reason why poverty cannot be attributed, quite correctly, to both problems with society and to poor choices by individuals? Dyson would not claim that poor people are inherently criminal, or programmed for teen pregnancy - quite the opposite:
In rigged town-hall meetings, Cosby assembles community folk and experts who agree with his take on black poverty: that it's the fault of the poor themselves.

It's often difficult to point out just how harmful that sentiment is, because most black folk do believe strongly in taking their destiny into their own hands. They believe in hard work and moral decency. They affirm the need for education and personal discipline. When they hear Cosby say that poor black folk should go to work, stay out of jail, raise their children properly and make sure they go to school, they nod their heads in agreement.
So these are "rigged town-hall meetings" which are attended by people who Dyson argues actually do reflect the majority opinion? That's an interesting way to "rig" a meeting.

Presumably these people agree with Bill Cosby that individual choice - the choice to take the path they model, or such individual choices as becoming an unwed parent, joining a gang, committing crime, or vandalizing the neighborhood are not made inevitable by poverty. Sure, societal problems can make it more difficult to make the correct choices, and from a "big picture" perspective you can show correlations between certain of society's ills and a greater number of poor choices by those affected by the ills. But is it not true that many of the problems can be fixed, or at least improved, from the bottom up as well as from the top down? And given the tendencies of today's society, is it really constructive to sit around and wait for a top-down fix, while ignoring the individual choices which collectively make inner city life so miserable for so many?

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