Sunday, December 09, 2007

Conversation Recap for December 9, 2007

It began to snow as we got underway today.

We began with a video on the Bill Cosby/Alvin Poussaint program on the program, Meet The Press. They wrote a book called “Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors,” which one review calls “a three-pronged hybrid advocating increased black self-determination and government accountability.” The book has spurred a lively discussion, to say the least—the review in The Nation describes the argument and comparisons to books by Tavis Smiley and Michael Eric Dyson. (Your note-taker could not find the video on the Meet The Press web site, but you can read the transcript of the interview here. Pasted into a Word file, it runs to 16 pages.)

Cosby and Poussaint talked about many things—the host of Meet the Press, Tim Russert, questioned them about unmarried mothers and children born to unmarried parents, and Cosby said we should start “firstly” with racism—systematic racism that keeps people from getting an education, and many other things. Among the topics they quickly mentioned: high school graduation rates, the number of people in prison and the incarceration rate in the United States, ideas in popular culture and in the media—it was truly broad. Russert emphasized their criticism of black popular culture, not their suggestion the discussion also include, let alone begin with, racism.

At one point, Cosby said this: “If you really understand what Bill Cosby is saying, if you really listen, he’s saying, “Get an education. Drive your children with love and care, and they will feel confidence when they go to school. Build a confidence about yourself and what you can control, and then you will be able to fight the systemic and the institutional. You will care more about what you do and what is done to you.” I’ve said that over and over.”

At one point, Poussaint said this: “ I think one of the things we emphasize in the book is that to make things happen, to bring about change, that you have to be an activist of some sort because things will just not happen for you. You have to go out and, and make demands, you have to get involved, you have to vote, that it just will not come. And you have the power to do that if you come together and you unify as a community and begin to talk about what we need to have a better community and better conditions for all black children.”

In the discussion, one member described a conversation she had with Michael Eric Dyson. He told her he has no disagreement with many of the things Cosby says, yet the celebrity that everyone knows is emphasizing the failures and dysfunctions in black families and communities. So the problem is not the message, but with Bill Cosby using his celebrity status to focus on the problems of black people, and could better balance it with more thorough discussion of white peoples’ roles in all of this. Here is a Dyson quote from that Nation review linked above: “Bill Cosby is a famous black guy who has a bully pulpit the size of the world. It's global. He puts his colossal foot on the vulnerable necks of poor people, and as a result of that we don't have a balanced conversation,”

One member noted that Cosby no longer lives in Philadelphia. If the successful leave neighborhoods, who is left to do the work and provide the examples he describes? Plus, who is his audience? Who is picking up the book and reading it? Who is watching Meet The Press? The member raised the comparison of Cosby going where the problem is found, instead of the big audience found on MSNBC and the book tour. The member inquired about his motivation.

Another member took issue with questioning his motivation, and argued the issue is what is the truth of the matter, of what needs to be done.

Another member thanked Bill Cosby for letting him off the hook, (as a white man)* and having no responsibility for any problems, and allowing him to sit on the sidelines. He suggested Cosby’s argument does not present any risk to the power structure.

Many of the comments emphasized the balance or lack of balance in the Cosby/Poussaint presentation. This is a conversation that few people encounter quiescently—Cosby and Poussaint touch many hot buttons.

One member said she agreed with every thing he said, but that he comes across as laying responsibility for racism onto the shoulders of black people.

One member said she continually observes whites doing all the things Cosby and Poussaint describe as distinctively black behaviors. Also, the dialogue stigmatizes single parent families, which means mostly women as head of families. There are countries with lots of women-headed households where you don’t see the differential outcomes—because there are features of the way work, school and social supports are organized that help people take care of each other.

Another member reminded us that the number one reason people end up single is domestic violence. Transformation is needed…. and be wary of talking about the problem as if the transformations are all needed in the black community.

One member described his own path to some of the things Cosby talked about, and emphasized that there are other paths than Cosby describes. His own mentor is completely missed in Cosby’s analysis.

Someone asked what all is Bill Cosby doing. He has a website about community things.

Several members emphasized that the real work is in the how, how to get from where we are to that better society.

One member expressed some pleasure at there being some active changes going on, that she sees a lot of people moving beyond a focus merely on personal responsibility. There are things to do as parent, as mentor, as activist, and find ways to do something.

Note: Almost an hour more of conversation continued after our note taker left at the formal ending hour of just a bit after 11am. The following are notes about that 2nd hour.

As stated in the notes on the first hour, most of the dialogue revolved around whether or not Cosby & Poussaint put too much emphasis on the “personal responsibility” angle and whether or not we should just take “facts” that they lay out and figure out how to address them. On member, talked of frustration about the focus on the breakdown of the black family as the root of all as well as the implication that it is the fault of black men who desert their families and then black women who can't or won't do an adequate job of raising the children. She talked about how slavery split the family--husbands and wives, parents and children and who's responsible for that breakdown of the black family? During Jim Crow segregation when fathers had to seek work, often times far from home and who's responsible for that breakdown of the black family? If one continues up to today with the prison industrial complex imprisoning many fathers and the welfare system creating a situation in which it makes economic sense for a father to be absent, indeed the welfare system will not provide for children of present fathers, so the jobless, once again, must seek work often far from home. Who, again, is responsible for this breakdown of the black family?

Most members, albeit to varying degrees, agreed with virtually everything C & P said, however those critical of the message made the points that, a) the arguments they make are the ones that are most comfortable and comforting to the system of white privilege and that if they had, in fact taken on the “personal responsibility” of white people for taking on racism, the book and it’s authors probably would never even get on a show like Meet the Press and b) those that emphasize taking on personal responsibility are often the same people who, when the “made it” left their communities rather than staying to mentor and help to pull others along with them. One young member challenged groups that purport to exist to support black political and economic enfranchisement yet since he’s become a member has yet to be invited to lunch or ever even asked about how he is doing and what assistance could be provided. He made the point that this is true even though he is already working to transform himself and should therefore be easy to work with. What about those youth left behind in the communities C & P are talking about, who have very few models and mentors left?

Members of this group are very active in mentoring youth, but all agreed that they too often represent the exception. Some feel that Cosby’s message is just that—where we can, we should take responsibility. The problem is, with whom does that personal responsibility lie? The quote comes to mind--“To whom much is given, much is expected.” It seems that many see Cosby & Poissaint as saying that to whom little or nothing is given, much is expected and those who benefit the most from the way our society is structured bear little responsibility for mitigating it’s effects.

*The second notetaker felt it was important to the context of this comment to reveal that the speaker was a white male.