Bill Cosby and Black Responsibility: The Problem of 'Blaming the Victim'

The following is the second in a series of excerpts from “Rebuilding America” to be featured on

At a 2004 meeting in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, comedian and actor Bill Cosby made some remarks that were sharply critical of the African American poor.

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Cosby challenged poor blacks by charging, “The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids—$500 for sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.’” He ridiculed the poor English of the black ghetto: “They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is.’ . . . And I blamed the kids until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk. . . . Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. . . . You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!” He suggested that African American criminals were being incarcerated not because of racism but because of crimes: “These are not political criminals. 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, [saying] ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”

The controversy began as soon as the Washington Post published Cosby’s comments. The controversy gained momentum as the wisdom of Cosby’s remarks was debated in the blogosphere.

Cosby dared to challenge African American responsibility for the conditions suffered in the black ghetto underclass. This attack went against the grain of politically correct rhetoric that defines white racism as the cause and black inequality as the result. Cosby was attacked both for his flippant tone and because his argument appeared to “blame the victim” for the racial inequality and racial injustice suffered. Cosby was attacked as being a successful elitist, an African American who had achieved success and was now embarrassed by less-fortunate African Americans. His comments were seen as “a relentless attack on poor and working-class African Americans.” Writing in the Village Voice, Ta-Nehisi Coates charged that Cosby was long on his moral attacks and short on solutions:

When the Coz came to Constitution Hall last week, he was one up on his audience. He had no solutions, and unlike his audience, he knew it. And so he fell back on what elitists do best—impose condescending lessons on ethics and etiquette. He fell back on Fat Albert, and a world where poverty can be beaten through sheer force of blithe axiom. Morality becomes the answer when you don’t have another one. Maybe we are everything the racists say we are—dumb, fat, and cute, in a really ugly and childish sort of way. But if we could just pay attention in school, stop stealing, learn proper English, and correctly apply deodorant, we’d be all right. Well, maybe not all right, but at least we wouldn’t make Cosby look so bad.

Bill Cosby issued a press release to defend himself, claiming that he felt he could no longer remain quiet. He was concerned that the conservative media was beginning to speak negatively of African Americans on the question of personal responsibility and that he wanted to lead the charge by “ringing the bell to galvanize those who want change in the lower economic community.” As the press release elaborated:

Mr. Cosby explains that his comments were intended to be a call to action, to “turn the mirror around on ourselves.” “I think that it is time for concerned African Americans to march, galvanize and raise the awareness about this epidemic to transform our helplessness, frustration and righteous indignation into a sense of shared responsibility and action.

“I travel the country and see these patterns in every community—stories of 12 year old children killed in the cross fire between knuckleheads selling drugs, the 14 year olds with a sealed envelope as their first step into the criminal justice system, the young males who become fathers and not held responsible, the young women having children and moving back in with their mothers and grandmothers, and the young people who choose not to learn standard English.

“My question: Is Bill Cosby hoping that the dropout rate will reach 70% soon and teenage single parenthood will grow to 80% in the lower economic neighborhoods? Or is he clanging a bell and warning that this is an epidemic that has to be stopped? Are we so worried about what others think about us that we are unwilling to address this disease that is infecting our people more and more every day?”

The criticism did not stop Cosby from voicing his charges. In October 2004, while visiting some public schools in Richmond, Va., with former Governor L. Douglas Wilder, who was then running for mayor, Cosby emphasized to the students the importance of their education: “Study. That’s all. It’s not tough. You’re not picking cotton. You’re not picking up the trash. You’re not washing windows. You sit down. You read. You develop your brain.” He commented on the problem of teenage pregnancy: “Everybody knows about sex. Not too many people know about algebra. Let’s think about love. Let’s think about where you can get it, but not sex. You’re too young for sex.” He spoke out against drugs and alcohol: “There are still old people who drink, do drugs—who will stop and take the time to tell you don’t be like them. Have you heard them? Pay attention to them.”

Cosby was clearly trying to connect with a message that black poverty would only end when and if black people themselves took responsibility for changing their lives. This was a very different message from the politics of guilt, where the message had been that white racism had placed barriers to African American progress, and these were the causes of racial injustice and inequality. Since the 1960s, many barriers had been removed; still the problem of black poverty persisted. Cosby argued that his intent was not to “blame the victims” but to encourage the victims to use their own moral resolve and determination to work themselves toward justice and equality now that the barriers of racial discrimination were substantially reduced. The message was one of self-help.

Bill Cosby is not alone in voicing the message of responsibility. Over the past few years an increasing number of African American conservatives have been expressing this theme, countering the rhetoric of anger and blame. The Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson is an African American pastor who founded BOND—the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny—a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “rebuilding the family by rebuilding the man.” Peterson’s focus is on family issues, approached through reinforcing the moral and economic role of African American males as the head of traditional families. He has argued that Democratic politicians have exploited the affinity African Americans have felt toward Democratic politicians since the New Deal. While Peterson’s tone is more seriously and directly expressed than Bill Cosby’s, his message is fundamentally in agreement:

Our biggest barrier as black Americans is no longer the law, white Americans, or black leaders. It is ourselves. We must solve the problems in our own community. Seventy percent of black children born out of wedlock is unacceptable. Celebration of drugs and perverse sex in rap music must be rejected.

In moving terms, Peterson described his own evolution from welfare dependence to a life based on themes of responsibility:

In a way, my life was a preview of much to come for many black Americans. I was born into a broken family in the tiny town of Comer Hill, Alabama. I did not know my father, and my mother had left me with her mother when I was a toddler and moved to Gary, Indiana, with another man.

Peterson explained how the trap of welfare dependency had captured him in a downward spiral:

In fact, I found it amazingly easy to get on welfare and simply live off the system. I signed up in Los Angeles and started receiving $300 a month. In addition, the system paid my rent and supplied me with food stamps, free medical coverage, and other benefits. I was making the white man pay me back for all the oppression I thought I’d been subjected to in the past. So I partied with that money, caroused with women, and lived a fairly degenerate life. I thought I had it made.

But while on welfare, things didn’t get better. They got worse. The more money I got from welfare, the less desire I had to work. It became spiritually and morally suffocating.

For Peterson, the key to breaking out of this debilitating welfare dependency demanded that he reject the rage he felt almost unconsciously for whites.

That themes of African American responsibility are being openly expressed and debated marks a shift in the debate on racial injustice in America. Up to now, liberal Democrats, who have defined the politically correct themes that may be expressed without criticism, have largely owned the terms of the debate. Anyone arguing themes of black responsibility, even if the critics are themselves African Americans, runs the risk of being labeled as racists, part of the problem, not the solution. Raising his voice in opposition to what he considers a black leadership that exploits African Americans has not been easy for Jesse Lee Peterson. He is regularly ridiculed and scorned by black leaders on the political Left. His thinking, according to the standards of liberal politics, is politically incorrect precisely because his themes call upon African Americans to use available opportunities to improve themselves. The politically correct theme would be to continue articulating the politics of rage against white racism, with the expectation that more government welfare programs are not only the solution but are required as a payback for the centuries of discrimination and racism suffered by African Americans.

Affixing the cause of poverty and racial injustice is a moral judgment, but the judgment that white racism is to blame for racial inequality has not been sufficient to solve the problems of racial discrimination that we have been trying for decades to address as a society. Behavioral social scientists argue that we must change what we do before we can change what we think. In other words, no matter how much we argue about who is at fault for causing racial injustice, nothing will change until we begin to change some of the realities themselves. From a behavioral perspective, we will not eliminate poverty in America, or in the black ghetto, until we begin to implement programs that register measurable improvements in the underlying conditions we are trying to change. Until a school program actually graduates more poor children, it doesn’t matter how much we argue about placing blame for the failure. We must begin to see more job prospects from our urban poverty ghettos actually get jobs before we will change attitudes about employment, but pointing fingers will get us nowhere. We can rail on moral issues for decades more, but we will not begin to see attitudes toward family and marriage change among the poor until we find successful methodologies that result in poor families forming and staying together.

From a behavioral perspective, the argument about blame is largely irrelevant, a rationalization for failure at best, not a productive path for solution. The War on Poverty is to be rejected, from a behavioral perspective, simply because it did not achieve its stated goal, that is, the elimination of poverty, regardless of whether the effort was right or well intentioned.