Personal Responsibility is a Two-Way Street: Bill Cosby and the Pathology of Passing the Buck

Published as a ZNet Commentary, 6/24/04

Perhaps Bill Cosby should have known better.

After all, just because you’re a black man loved by millions of white folks, doesn’t mean you can actually count on those whites to receive your words in the spirit you say you intended.

Such a lesson became obvious in late May, when word spread about Cosby’s remarks at the NAACP’s 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, striking down school segregation.

Instead of taking the opportunity to discuss the ongoing struggles for educational equity, or to address the remaining barriers of unequal funding, racially-disparate tracking and discipline, and other obstacles to meaningful parity in our nation’s schools, Cosby spent his time bashing the black poor, ridiculing them for the clothes they wear, the way they speak, even the names they give their children.

It was a truly classist diatribe, littered with inaccurate stereotypes, all of which proved that Cosby hasn’t known many poor black folks for a very long time, since only a small percentage of low-income African Americans commit crime, most actually place a high value on education, and only a small percentage get pregnant as minors, contrary to Cosby’s apoplectic rant.

But putting aside the inaccuracy of Cosby’s statements that night, what was most disturbing was the way much of white America took them.

Although Cosby, to his credit, never said that racism was a thing of the past — and indeed such is not his position at all — and although he said nothing to the effect that white folks no longer had any responsibilities to address discrimination or racism, that’s what a lot of whites, and pretty much all white conservatives, apparently heard.

Fact is, Cosby was merely trying, albeit in an obnoxious, over-the-top manner, to call for “personal responsibility” among poor blacks: an idea that is (contrary to what most whites seem to think) quite common in African American communities, and which exists side-by-side with a keen awareness of the need for continued vigilance against various forms of racism and exclusion.

But what whites too often misunderstand is that if personal responsibility is good for the black goose, it must also be good for the white gander.

Thus, not only do Cosby’s words not let whites off the hook, the spirit of his comments actually require us to be even more deliberate about taking responsibility for that which we have some control over: namely, white racism, and the discrimination that takes place in institutions that we control, every day.

I’ve always found it funny how whites want to view personal responsibility as a one-way street: In other words, they need to clean up their act, but we don’t need to do anything but perhaps watch, and scold them for not moving quickly enough. I remember the first time I had this argument with a black conservative — radio talk show host Ken Hamblin — on a nationally-syndicated TV show. He was ranting and raving, much like Cosby, about blacks taking responsibility for their own lives. Rather than argue with him about his views of the black community, I simply said, “Fine, if you want black folks to take responsibility for themselves, that’s great. But meanwhile, what are whites supposed to take personal responsibility for? The St. Patty’s day parade? Oktoberfest?”

In other words, whites too often use “personal responsibility” as a bludgeon against others, when we no longer want to deal with the crap we put out there, whether its discrimination in lending by white banks, racial profiling by cops, or moving away from a neighborhood when too many of “those” people move in. After all, how can black folks take responsibility for the fact that even when they have the same level of education and experience, they still are paid less than their white counterparts, and are more likely to be unable to find a job? How can black folks take responsibility for the fact that black men are twice as likely to have their cars stopped and searched for drugs, even though whites are twice as likely to actually have drugs on us when we’re stopped?

Black and brown poor folks are doing self-help all the time, contrary to the common media imagery. They have to; after all, they have enough experience with white institutions to know that such institutions have never done much to improve their situation, and nothing at all unless it was demanded and unless they were mobilized collectively to make it happen. But I see very little self-help or even self-reflection in the white community. Rarely do we spend time dealing with our own internalized racial biases and fears, or the discrimination that continues to plague people of color, and which only we have any control over, since the folks doing the discriminating are white like us. In fact, not only do we not reflect on it, we get angry when someone brings it up, which is why whites breathe a collective sigh of relief when someone like Cosby comes along and allows us to think our jobs are over.

But our jobs are not over. And if we expect people of color to take personal responsibility, irrespective of racism’s existence and impact on their lives, then surely we must apply the same logic to ourselves, and take personal responsibility, irrespective of how we think black folks are behaving, or how dysfunctional we may (falsely) perceive them to be. If they aren’t allowed to pass the buck then neither can we be allowed to do so. In other words, it is white folks’ job to deal with racism, not point fingers at black and brown folks and tell them to do better. That, after all, is not taking personal responsibility; rather, it’s lecturing others about their need to do so.

Even worse, many whites actually blame others for our own racial biases. So, for example, whites will often acknowledge negative perceptions of blacks as lazy, violent, dishonest, or whatever, and then blame black folks for feeding that perception by their own actions. Talk about not taking personal responsibility! So because of the actions of a small, unrepresentative sample of the African American community (the three percent or so who commit a violent crime annually, for example), whites feel justified in thinking negative things about blacks as a group. And then, in what can only be viewed as the epitome of silliness, these same whites want everyone to believe that racism is no longer an obstacle for blacks, even though they have admitted to holding negative views about the entire community in question!

So we are to believe that persons holding these biases would nonetheless be able to fairly evaluate black job applicants, or potential tenants, or loan applicants; that somehow these stereotypes to which they confess would play no role in their evaluations of such persons in the real world! Just listen to the logic here: “Racism isn’t holding blacks back, it’s their own laziness!” If one cannot see the irony in this comment go back and read it again; read it three or four times until you get it. If anything, statements like this are their own negation; they serve to disprove their own claim, even before someone has the chance to respond to them.

As for Cosby — white America’s favorite black man (for now) — perhaps we should ask how most whites felt about his comment several years ago that AIDS may well have been created by the U.S. Government as a plot to destroy certain communities; or the statement of his wife Camille when their son was murdered, in which she noted that America had taught her son’s Russian killer to hate blacks. As I recall, most whites either said nothing in response to these claims, or went ballistic, accusing the Cosbys of “playing the race card.”

See, white folks don’t like the race card, unless it’s the one that helps our own hand. Whites, by and large, never listen to black people, unless they’re saying what we already want to hear. That’s how desperate we are to avoid taking personal responsibility for the mess that racism has made of this nation; a mess in which we are more than a little implicated, historically speaking and still today.

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