Friday, December 21, 2007

What About Common Values

I'm somewhat used to hearing people like Michael Erik Dyson argue that Bill Cosby is wrong to focus on social factors which contribute to poverty, while disregarding economic and historic factors. The obvious retort is that as an individual you can't change history, and you can't change the socio-economic standing of your community, but you can change yourself. The statistics may suggest that a particular individual is most likely to end up in prison, but personal choices can instead place that individual in college. Even though Bill Cosby is addressing a particular racial minority, it is a mistake to view this as a race issue.

Recently the Washington Post ran an editorial by Khalil G. Muhammad, under what is perhaps an unfortunate headline, White May Be Might, But It's Not Always Right. Some significant errors in the editorial have been addressed elsewhere. But I am more interested in the argument itself, and what appears to be a glaring internal inconsistency, than with its support.

Muhammad opens by relating how his mostly white students at an Indiana university agreed with Cosby's perspective on parenting.
After hearing Cosby plead for poor blacks to embrace their parenting responsibilities, many of the students said they wished their parents had followed his advice. They regretted that some of their peers had done poorly in school, abused drugs and alcohol, and run afoul of the law. These problems, they agreed, might have been avoided with more supervision at home.
That could be taken as evidence of the universality of Cosby's argument - he's making his case to a particular audience, but his concepts of good parenting are not race-based. Muhammad doesn't take that view:
Cosby and the recent Pew study are the latest in a long finger-wagging tradition of instructing poor blacks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and reject pathologically "black" values.
But who is defining these values as "black"? It does not appear to be Bill Cosby - that characterization seems to come from his critics. If presented as a straw man to knock down, it's a dishonest response. Muhammad appears to be deliberately misrepresenting Cosby, and misrepresenting a question posed by NPR, in order to build up this straw man.
Unfortunately, this line of questioning reinforces one of the most persistent myths in America, that white is always right. The myth reflects an enduring double standard based on "white" and "black" explanations for social problems. And it assumes that "white" culture is the gold standard for judging everyone, despite its competing ideologies, its contradictions and its flaws, including racism.
Okay, then - let's cast aside all racial components of Bill Cosby's argument. Let's look exclusively at what Bill Cosby favors - stronger families, family support for education, educational achievement, staying out of legal trouble, comporting behavior to the norms of the majority culture - which of those aspirations would Muhammad describe as either representative of "white culture" or as inconsistent with "black culture"? If the argument is that a minority culture should be treated equally with the majority culture, and its differences in lifestyle and dialect should not affect the prospects for a member of the minority in education, employment, or any other sphere of life, that's an ideal which I have never seen actualized in any culture. Perhaps Muhammad views the axiom, "When in Rome..." as a "white value", but is there any nation where it does not apply? Further, as previously noted, even where the response to the minority is unfair, and even where the majority reaction may evolve over time and become more accepting, it's not something an individual can change. By all means work for change but, fair or not, base your personal choices on reality.
If lower-class "black" values are so distinct from those of the rest of America, particularly the "white values" supposedly now embraced by middle- and upper-class blacks, why, according to the Pew report, do less than a third of white Americans graduate from college? Are legions of whites similarly devaluing higher education? Are they "acting black"?
Perhaps this is intended as a reductio ad absurdem and not as a straw man but, again, this doesn't have to be a race issue. The choices made in poor white communities that result in economic failure and the perpetuation of poverty do not represent "acting black" any more than the analogous choices made in poor black communities represent "acting white". In both contexts, raising children with Bill Cosby's advice in mind can help break the cycle of poverty.
If we insist on explaining racial disparities in terms of black vs. white values, then we need to explain what exactly white values are. When we do, we'll find that whiteness is an inadequate standard by which to judge good black people vs. bad ones.
Which is probably why that standard is the preferred straw man of Cosby's critics, rather than one he proposes.

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