The following article appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 74 (Spring 2005).
Bill Cosby, the wealthy liberal Black comedian, has become the point man for a vicious attack on what he calls the Black “lower economic people.” It began at a NAACP gala in Washington D.C. on May 17, 2004, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision against segregation in public schools. Cosby’s speech contemptuously denounced working-class Black parents and youth as responsible for social ills like unemployment that blight the Black community.
His tirade hit its low point when he gave a cover for racist police murders:
These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, “The cops shouldn’t have shot him.” What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?
Unlike the justified mass outrage that he mocks, Cosby is outraged at the thought of protests over cops killing kids who supposedly commit petty thievery. Thus he makes light of hundreds of brutal slayings – like that of Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times in New York in 1999 for having his own wallet in his hand.
This scandalous harangue was only the beginning. In the same speech he spewed out a litany of racist and anti-working-class claims. He has since carried his campaign across the nation, and support for his campaign isn’t coming only from the far right.
Cosby received accolades in the white and Black bourgeois media for his "courage,” for “telling it like it is.” The Democratic Party warmly welcomed his support. He has been feted by Black colleges and churches. He is supported not only by Black businessmen and reactionary nationalists like Louis Farrakhan, but also by liberal integrationists like Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume, and artists like Spike Lee. Even the “militant” Al Sharpton registered as ambivalent. Outrage has been disgustingly little, even on the left.
Here are more gems from Cosby’s Washington speech:
The lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal. ... And these people are not parenting. They’re buying things for the kid – $500 sneakers – for what? They won’t buy or spend $250 on “Hooked on Phonics.” ... Brown v. Board of Education – these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English.
That is, poor Black people are wasting the opportunities that the civil rights struggle gave them, says Cosby. Parents in the “lower economic” order spoil and fail to control their “knucklehead” children who do not bother to learn standard English.
It didn’t stop there. On July 1 in Chicago, at Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push conference, he enlarged on his attacks on “lower economic people.” He deliberately stereotyped all impoverished Blacks as violent, uneducated and unmotivated:
You’ve got to stop beating up your women because you can’t find a job, because you didn’t want to get an education and now you’re [earning] minimum wage.
He said he didn’t care about airing “dirty laundry” in front of white people. About Black youth, he sneered,
Let me tell you something, your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it’s cursing and calling each other n-----. … They think they’re hip. They can’t read; they can’t write. They’re laughing and giggling, and they’re going nowhere.
Cosby added that Blacks shouldn’t blame whites for their problems today:
We have to turn the mirror around. Because for me it is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us, and it keeps a person frozen in their seat. It keeps you frozen in your hole that you are sitting in to point up and say, ‘That’s the reason why I am here.’ We need to stop this.
Translation: Racism isn’t why poor Blacks are stuck at the bottom; it’s now their own fault. Conclusion: a struggle against racism is irrelevant.
Cosby attributes anti-social conduct like unwillingness to work, criminality, drug and alcohol addiction and hostility to education to the poor in general. Much of this conduct is prevalent among the “lumpen proletarians” of all races – those who embrace careers of crime and other forms of social parasitism. But it is a sick lie to paint the majority of less well-paid Black working-class people with the same brush.
Given racism and its forced inequality, Black people still constitute a disproportionate share of the people who are unemployed, many of whom have had their benefits slashed by Clinton’s “reform” measures and other cutbacks accelerated by Bush. No unprejudiced person can deny that this is the result of the history and ongoing reality of racism. The broad anti-working-class cutbacks in income and social benefits, combined with the anti-Black backlash, have taken their toll.
Despite the pressures of joblessness, the overwhelming majority of able-bodied people on welfare or unemployment insurance wanted to work rather than to stay on the dole. The notion that unemployed Black people are responsible for their own plight excuses these cutbacks while obstructing a desperately needed serious fight against layoffs and for jobs. There are more white people getting such assistance than Black people, yet the white racists and Cosby’s of this world characteristically single out the Black recipients and lump all poor Blacks together.
There is a connection, but it is not what Cosby assumes. Capitalism requires unemployment so it can use competition among workers to lower wages and conditions. In the U.S. and around the world, it uses racism to intensify this competition. Historically, after slavery American Black people served as an enforced reservoir of “free” but ill-paid labor, used to undercut all wage levels and to undermine strikes by all workers. U.S. capitalism grew rich by dividing and conquering the working class through racial oppression. Even though banned by law, the segregated racial caste system is still operative.
Today, past gains won by working-class struggles are being taken away. Wages are being forced down, and many workers are forced to compete even more for the minimum-wage, hardest and dirtiest jobs. In the U.S., the primary target continues to be the Black workers.
Racially-dictated unemployment, when it becomes long-term and chronic, drives the growth of the lumpen proletariat. Their predatory conduct mirrors the rapaciousness of the capitalist system that created them. Racism segregates poverty-stricken Black workers, employed and unemployed, and gives them no choice but to live side by side with criminal elements who prey on them. This miserable social situation is created by racist capitalism itself, not by personal choice.
The anti-youth aspect of Cosby’s attack is virulent. He dwells on their lack of education and blames them and their parents. Never mind the decrepit and underfunded state of public schools. Youth are characteristically rebellious, and given the huge barriers they face in the United States, Black youth are often particularly angry. Many plunge into escapist dreams of achieving celebrity, instead of the effort necessary to achieve the (highly improbable) long-term rewards that genteel society pretends are realistic. The rich – like Cosby – deliberately ignore the life and aspirations of youth in the ghettos. Very few Black people will be allowed to rise to the top and live the “American Dream.”
On top of that, the schools are disciplining agencies, meting out more penalties and threats in an already threatening world. Much of what they teach is obedience and propaganda for the system. Many white kids play the game because they see reasonable job rewards for regurgitating the lessons. Not so for huge numbers of Black youth (and increasing numbers of whites as well), who are doomed to unemployment, marginal work or life in the army as cannon fodder. No wonder that more Black (and Latino) youth tend to be rebellious, suspicious and alienated from the start.
Revolutionary socialists do not patronize working-class youth. When we see anti-social or criminal conduct by people who are racially or nationally oppressed, we readily acknowledge the fact and point out its dangers, just as we do with the rest of the working class. But we blame anti-social criminals for their rotten acts. We don’t smear the innocent by lumping them together with the guilty. We also point to the true cause – racist capitalism. Only a racist or a fool fails to note the deeper social causes. Cosby is no fool.
Cosby and his ilk are our enemies. They are part of the problem, not the solution. Today, the massive attack on the working class is picking up steam. Both Republicans and Democrats, representing the ruling class, are intent on wiping out all the gains made by workers during the explosive labor struggles of the 1930’s and the Black revolt of the 1960’s-70’s. Cosby’s crusade meshes with the rollback by denying this reality and calling for individualist solutions, not a mass fightback. The once powerful militancy in defense of their rights demonstrated by Black workers has already been stifled for years, with the help of Black middle-class politicians and trade union misleaders.
In the course of finding its way to revolutionary consciousness, the working class goes through many forms of rebellion, some productive and some self-defeating. As Marxists we know that consciousness of the truth does not come through supernatural revelations, intellectual saviors or elitist lectures and attacks. The trial and error of experience, together with the leadership of those workers who already understand revolutionary reality, is key. In fighting against the sometimes mistaken paths taken by workers, revolutionists always identify with the spirit of revolt. That spirit needs to be revived if the entwined struggle against racism and capitalism is to be resurgent. In contrast, Cosby is embarrassed by and seeks to crush the healthy aspects of the day-to-day struggle for survival in the ghetto – the rebellious spirit.
One of the most vicious weapons used historically, and still today, in the racist attack on Black people is “mind rape.” The pervasive myth of Black inferiority has not only been used to inflame white racists but has often been imposed on Black consciousness itself. In class society, many subjugated people often, for a time, accept the self-denigrating images forced upon them by their oppressors. The revolts against segregation and oppression in the 1960’s and 70’s not only attacked racist institutions and laws – they were the means through which many Black people cast off this self-defeating mythology. Thus “Black Pride” became a symbol of the anti-racist struggle.
It is no accident that since the mass Black struggle has been diminished over the years, self-contempt has risen among the youth. And Cosby criminally tells them that they are right!
Moreover, revolutionary uprisings and mass movements, from the Paris Commune to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, show that the best way for the oppressed and exploited to get rid of petty thievery and other anti-social conduct is through mass struggles against the social order. From this angle, Cosby’s complaint denounces the only real solution to the problems he says he is concerned about.
Current data shows that criminal conduct among Black youth has seriously receded in recent years. So why is Cosby’s attack now so openly popular in Black middle- and upper-class circles?
As a result of the Black revolt of the 1960’s and 70’s, a sizable Black middle class has arisen. Because of their class position, many of them have come to share the disdain for the Black masses held by their white equivalents. But despite these common class attitudes, the Black upper strata have not been allowed to achieve Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of real equality. And even for them, “integration” is severely limited and tenuous. Over the years, many embarrassed middle-class Black people have tried to distance themselves from the Black poor, in order to achieve acceptance by their white counterparts.
The bitter phrase heard so often about the Black middle class is that "they have forgotten where they came from.” It isn’t entirely true, but not because many haven’t tried. The unyielding fact is that capitalist America remains thoroughly racist even though it now tries to hide it. The upper strata of Black people are still identified by whites as linked by color to the mass of poor Black people, and for all their displays of wealth and education, they have not been allowed to escape that fact. They are linked not with the real working people of the ghetto, with all their pluses and minuses, but with the all-pervasive racist stereotypes.
The Black upper strata have tried a variety of approaches to fulfill their social ambitions. They enthused over Jesse Jackson’s political campaigns, which were designed to gain acceptance of Black people as “just another ethnic group” within the mainstream: “African-Americans” – just like Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, etc. Their most saluted “role models” are people like Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Barack Obama, who happen to be completely free from any association with Black people’s struggles against racist oppression. Many even momentarily embraced Farrakhan and his “Million Man March,” which called for Black “atonement” (no less!) for their alleged past misdeeds as a people. Since many feel that their role models have been totally incapable of changing the outlook of the youth, they temporarily bought into the false idea that Farrakhan could get them to clean up their act.
With the appearance of Black faces in important positions, the middle class has had some hope for further success. Their open acceptance of Cosby’s attack shows an added degree of class confidence. But many also see the threat on the horizon. As the economic situation declines and joblessness expands, the prospects worsen and the potential for a greater growth of even more rebellious conduct by young Black workers looms on the horizon. As well, the gains made by much of the Black middle class are tied to government support, especially in areas like heavy industry and the public sector where contraction is most likely. Cutbacks and rollbacks loom like swords poised above their heads. An economic plunge could reduce their living standards to working-class levels, uncomfortably close to the image of the Black masses.
Cosby’s key claim, that Black workers are betraying the gains made by the civil rights movement, is a monstrous untruth. He assumes that those gains were won by the middle-class religious and political leaders. In fact, the civil rights leadership hit an impasse in the late 1960’s. Martin Luther King, the NAACP and the other leaders were fruitlessly begging the liberal Democrats to cede more gains. They warned that if they didn’t, the growing ghetto revolts would explode in size and power. None of them had the power to restrain the Black working-class and poor youth who led the uprisings.
This revolt scared Washington into making massive concessions in jobs and income to Black America. The government and private bourgeois foundations moved rapidly to create a leadership which would have clout among the Black masses but would be dependent on the ruling-class institutions for its stake in society. Blacks were given positions in government and the corporations to back up the illusion that real upward mobility for the masses was possible. The expanded middle class owes its very existence to the struggle of the Black workers and unemployed who rose up in ghetto rebellions, and to the Black-led industrial strikes in the same years.
Cosby says to the Black masses, “We won it for you.” In reality, they won it for him.
As the decay of capitalism deepens, the situation for Black America can only worsen. The history of liberation struggles reveals two facts. The huge gains were won by the working class through mass action. The primary beneficiaries have been the upper and middle strata, who misled the struggles. It is time that the Black working class took charge of its own destiny and provided the leadership for the struggles that will inevitably explode once again.
The ghetto revolts and the strikes of the 60’s and 70’s showed the enormous power of Black workers. Even with all the industrial erosion in the U.S., Black workers are still central to the workforce in the decisive industries and in major cities. The early 1970’s also showed – for the first time – that white workers would follow the lead of militant Black workers in significant strikes, even in the South. In the coming days when the class struggle erupts again, Black workers will take the lead again.
And they won’t be alone. Black workers have natural allies, not enemies, in the growing Latino and immigrant sectors of the working class. It is now inescapable that the only way that Black and Latino workers can keep their jobs, given racial and ethnic discrimination, is by championing a program of guaranteed jobs for all people who want to work.
Further struggles demanding the end of the attack on Black workers and youth will prove that racism is inherent in capitalism; the only way that democratic rights, equality and economic security can be achieved is through socialist revolution. Cosby’s tirade, and its support among the Black elite, shows once again that the fight against racism will have to be led by the Black working class and youth. An end to racism is only possible through the conquest of power by the united, interracial working class, and the building of socialism, led by its own revolutionary working-class party. Given their history of struggle, there is no doubt that young Black and Latino workers will be represented in the revolutionary vanguard far in excess of their proportion in society.