Monday, February 18, 2008

Bill Cosby Doesn’t Know My Mama, Just Racial Stereotypes of Low and Moderate Income Black People

Bill Cosby is at it again. He recently joined forces with professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint to author a new book, “Come on People!”

Thematically, the book is a literary extension of his “call-out sessions.” For the last 3 years or so, Cosby has traveled around the country calling black people (well, poor black people) out about their so-called pathological behaviors (having babies out of wed-lock, giving their children African names they can’t pronounce, calling each other Nigga, talking loud in public places, dropping out of school, being illiterate, buying rap music, wearing baggy pants, not speaking right, and so on).

The recent hoopla about Cosby’s book made me think about a piece I wrote that appeared in the Hartford Courant on July 15, 2004, shortly after Cosby had visited Springfield, Mass., near the beginning of his call-out tour. As you can tell from the piece, I think Cosby’s moral crusade is problematic for a number of reasons.

I reprint this piece without permission from the Courant. Hopefully they will not come and get me.

Bill Cosby Forgets the Obstacles

As a black man, I’m so angry at Bill Cosby that I could spit. Not because he has aired my people’s dirty laundry. Social scientists, beginning with W.E.B. Du Bois in his seminal work, “The Philadelphia Negro,” have been complaining about the so-called pathological behavior of black people for more than a century.

Cosby made me angry because he insulted my mama. You see, my mother was one of those welfare-dependent singly parents whom Cosby and others are so fond of kicking around.

After I read about his July 9 [2004] visit to Springfield, Mass., and the glowing response he received, I called my mama in Detroit and asked, “Why do people like Bill Cosby say such harsh things about poor black people?”

On the one hand, Cosby is right that too many black youths drop out of high school, that too many young girls get pregnant, that there is too much illiteracy and violence in black communities.

But he talks as if poor black people were simply immoral and irresponsible. What impact does the economic situation in cities have on these problems? What about the way young people are inundated daily with images of violence, sex, materialism and consumerism? Surely this matters.

My mama thinks so, too.

She got right to the point: “People who make it out like Cosby forget just how hard it is to live when you are poor.”

It was around 10:30 p.m., but I could tell that Mama was revved up. It was time to close my mouth, sit back, and listen.

Being poor is so hard, she point out. It is so easy to get frustrated, to want to give up. This is why so many people, she thinks, turn to drugs and alcohol. They are trying to escape. But it only makes things worse.

She believes that millionaires like Cosby forget how hard it is to work every day only to collect a paycheck that barely allows you to make ends meet.

She could not understand why he would complain about poor people who live above their means but not criticize middle-class people saddled with tons of credit-card debt.

She reminded me that even as we were talking, thousands of black kids were going to bed hungry, not because their parents are irresponsible, but because “people run out of money.”

Preach! Preach, Mama! I thought.

“It’s so hard to find decent housing,” she said. Moreover, the housing that is now being built in many cities, she complained, is not for poor black people, but is designed to lure rich white people back to the city. “I can’t afford any of that mess.”

She agreed with Cosby that there are lot of young men and women who do not work, but then asked, “What are they supposed to do?” There are no jobs in these cities, because they all followed the white folks to the suburbs.

“When I got to Detroit in the 1950s, even a high school dropout could get a job in construction or at an automobile plant and be able to afford a house and send their kids to college,” she said. “You can’t do that today.”

I could not keep silent any longer. “Tell it! Tell it like it is, Mama!”

Although she applauded Cosby’s philanthropy, she thinks that it is only a drop in the bucket. “What about the majority of kids who do not go to college or the ones who are not college material? Who will pay for their job training?”

She continued: “I do not understand why white folks are willing to spend billions of dollars building housing and schools in Iraq, but refuse to do the same thing in black communities across this country.”

She was particularly mad that so many young black men and women were in the military fighting Bush’s war. She believes that many of them enlist simply because there are so few economic opportunities in the communities that they come from.

I thought, Amen, Mama! Amen!

We continued to talk well past midnight, about the meaning of life, about the future of black people, about why she does not have a daughter-in-law yet.

When we finished, I told my mama I loved her. She said she loved me, too. After that, we said goodbye.

I was not as angry at Bill Cosby after I got off the phone. I realized that he doesn’t know my mama like I do.

Thanks Mama. I still love you!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Black Church in Contemporary Politics

Churches (and other religious institutions) play a very special role in American life. Compared to people in other countries, Americans are more likely to be affiliated with a church, to attend services, and to participate in educational, charitable, or social activities organized by their churches.[1] By providing “an important incubator for civic skills, civic norms, community interests, and civic recruitment” churches also help to build up the civic skills and attitudes church members need to become active in politics.[2]

The Black church has a unique importance in the American political system. Any candidate – Democratic or Republican – running for local, state, or national office, who wants the support of the black community must don their “Sunday’s best,” and go to church.[3] The reason, as Political Scientist, Melissa V. Harris-Lacewell, so aptly puts it, “Black churches are a site of organized, committed, well-networked, partisan faithful who can be influenced and mobilized by adept candidates.”[4]

The Black church is one of the oldest and most resilient institutions in the Black community. And because the church is traditionally an institution owned and ran by Black people, it has had a measure of independence which has allowed it to be at the forefront of the Black community’s on-going struggle against white supremacy. Religious scholar, C. Eric Lincoln, puts it this way:

Beyond its purely religious function, as critical as that function has been, the Black church in its historical role as lyceum, conservatory, forum, social service center, political academy, and financial institution, has been and is for Black America the mother of our culture, the champion of our Freedom, and hallmark of our civilization.[5]

We are now in the thick of the 2008 presidential election. What role, if any, will Black churches play in this year’s presidential race? Many students of Black politics expect the church to play a major role. However, there are a number of recent organizational trends that may undermine the effectiveness of the Black church in 2008 and beyond.

The Centrality of the Black Church and Beyond

The historic centrality of the Black church is well documented. According to one of the leading scholars on the Black struggle for civil rights (I prefer to call it the Black Freedom Movement) during the 1950s and 1960s, Sociologist, Aldon Morris,

[T]he black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern civil movement. … Churches provided the movement with an organized mass bass; a leadership of clergymen largely economically independent of the larger white society and skilled in the art of managing people and resources; an institutionalized financial base through which protest was financed; and meeting places where the masses planned tactics and strategies and collectively committed themselves to the struggle.[6]

While the Black church was instrumental to the Black Freedom Movement, many churches, long before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, also mobilized the Black community for political activity. Generally speaking, when it comes to politics, there has never been a sharp delineation between the political and the sacred; “Black religious life and political life have historically commingled.”[7] At the local level, Black churches have been instrumental in the elections of Black mayors. In 1984 and 1988, Reverend Jesse Jackson run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination relied heavily on the organizational resources of the Black church. In addition to a rhetorical style honed during years of preaching in the pulpit of Black churches across America, Jackson relied on a vast network of Black ministers and churches, Black Christian volunteers, and Black church contact lists to raise money and mobilize voters. In addition to the popularity of his policies, a reason why former president, Bill Clinton, was able to capture black electoral support was the ease with which he was able to mimic the rhetorical style of Black preachers.

Looking to the 2008 presidential election and beyond, however, how effective the Black church will be is less clear. Some scholars question the capacity of Black churches to continue to motivate their congregation for participation in politics. A reason why some doubt the ability of the church to mobilize blacks for participation is that consistent with broader trends in American society, fewer Blacks are members or attend church on a regular basis. Unfortunately, for those who do not attend church, the costs of political participation may be too high, especially for the resource poor. “Those who do not attend politicized black churches must bear the cost of deciphering and navigating the political world without this subsidy,” observes one scholar, “which means that they must gather all the information and opportunities on their own without having it provided through the church.”[8]

A second reason why some scholars question the continued importance of the Black church to contemporary politics is that a growing proportion of Blacks are attending nondenominational megachurches rather than the mainline black denominations that once were the backbone of the Black Freedom Movement. They question “whether black megachurches have effectively maintained the African American church’s traditional commitment to an active engagement with broad black community issues.”[9] A particular worry being voiced more and more often is the so-called “gospel of bling” – as it is derisively called – being preached from the pulpit at some (not all) large and fast-growing megachurches by prominent, influential, attractive preachers.

“I AM CONVINCED THAT THE SINGLE [emphasis in the original] threat to the historical legacy and core values of the contemporary black church tradition,” writes Theologian, Robert M. Franklin, “is posed by what is known as the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement. That movement, however, is only symptomatic of a larger mission crisis or ‘mission drift’ that has placed the black church in the posture of assimilating into a culture that is hostile to people living on the margins of society, such as people living in poverty, people living with AIDS, homosexuals, and immigrants.” According to Franklin, prosperity preaching “provides sacred sanction for personal greed, obsessive materialism, and unchecked narcissism.”[10]

Finally, some scholars also question the continued ability of the church to influence debates and/or shape public policy directly affecting the Black community in the post-civil rights era. The writers of Long March Ahead: African American Churches and Public Policy in the Post-Civil Rights America – the second of a two-volume study conducted by the faculty of Morehouse College designed to “examine the relation of African American churches to American political life in the late twentieth century” – conclude that Black churches have played a spotty role, at best, in regards to those public policies in the post-civil rights era particularly relevant to the black community, such as affirmative action, anti-apartheid activism, crime, health care, reproductive rights, urban school reform, and welfare reform policy.[11]

In spite the many challenges that it faces for continued political relevance, the central role of the Black church in American politics is probably not in serious jeopardy. Its organizational resources are too vast to be ignored. Moreover, the eventual Democratic nominee – Senator Hillary Clinton or Senator Barack Obama – will try to capture for their campaign the organizational resources of the Black church. The real question is given the trends discussed above, will the Black church be able to deliver the goods once the candidates don their Sunday’s best and come-a-calling.

Stay tuned!

[1] Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L. & Brady, H. E. (1995). Voice and equality: Civic voluntarism in American politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, quotation at page 18.

[2] Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, quotation at page 66.

[3] Although I use the term “Black Church,” it is important to note that there has never been a monolithic Black Church, nor has there ever been a monolithic “Black Politics.”

[4] Harris-Lacewell, Melissa V. (Summer, 2007). Righteous politics: The role of the black church in contemporary politics. Cross Currents, 57(2), 180-196, quotation at page 180.

[5] Lincoln, C. Eric. (April, 1989). “The black church and black self-determination” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Black Foundation Executives, Kansas City, Missouri, as quoted in Putnam, Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community, page 68-69.

[6] Morris, Aldon D. (1984). The origin of the civil rights movement: Black communities organizing for change. New York: Free Press, quotation at page 4. See also Doug McAdam. (1982). Political process and the development of black insurgency, 1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[7] Tate, Katherine. (1994). From Protest to Politics: The New Black Voters in American Elections. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, quotation at page 77.

[8] Harris-Lacewell, Righteous politics: The role of the black church in contemporary politics. Cross Currents, 57(2), 180-196 quotation at page 182.

[9] Smith, R. Drew & Tucker-Wongs, Tamelyn. (2000). Megachurches: African-American churches in social and political context. In Daniels, Lee (Ed.), The State of Black America 2000, (page 187), as quoted in Harris-Lacewell, Righteous politics: The role of the black church in contemporary politics. Cross Currents, 57(2), 180-196.

[10] Franklin, Robert M. (January, 2007). The gospel bling: If preachers are preoccupied with pursing the life of conspicuous consumption and preaching a ‘prosperity gospel,’ then poor people are in big trouble. Sojourners Magazine, 36(1), 18-23, quotation at page 18.

[11] Smith, R. Drew (2004). Long march ahead: African-American churches and public policy in the post-civil rights America. Ed. by R. Drew Smith. Durham: Duke University Press, quotation at page ix.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Gender, Race and the 2008 Presidential Race

Is it gender or race that is shaping the Democratic Party nomination? After a spirited debate with a colleague, I walked away from our conversation convinced more than ever that it is really both, just in very different ways: sexism in a very overt fashion, racism in a very subtle, covert way.

Let’s be clear, in spite of what polls say, many people (particularly male voters) will not support Senator Clinton because she is a women. Moreover, while separating the disdain some in the media have for her and her husband from the sexism is sometimes hard, it clear that the media treatment of her has been shameful and biased. Remember the sexist portrayal of her show of emotion and passion just before the New Hampshire primary.

Not surprisingly, the torrent of media bias is having an effect on voters, even female Clinton supporters.

Much has been made about the gender gap. According to national polls, throughout much of this campaign season, Senator Clinton has been ahead of Senator Obama and enjoyed disproportionately strong support from women. However, recent Gallup polls show that Obama is catching up, and perhaps surprisingly, his gains have been most pronounced among female voters (13 percentage points).

While I think that some whites will vote for Obama because he is man, I think that more whites will vote for him because he is black; which, if I am right, may be just as racist as refusing to vote for him because he is, well, black.

Let me explain.

Again, let’s be clear. Obama is one of the most intriguing political personalities in, at least, the last 40 years. His message of hope, change, and transcendence has generated a surge of excitement in not just the Democratic Party, but all of America. But, what role is race playing in this surge?

Generally speaking, most whites do not believe that they are racists. As a matter of fact, many whites claim that they do not even see race, just people. It is certainly true that the beliefs that once buttressed Jim Crow segregation, such as, the arguments that blacks are stupid, lazy, or immoral are rarely made except by the most extreme white supremacist.

But, is racism really a “thing of the past.” The answer to that question depends on who you are asking.

According to a January 14-17, 2008, CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll survey, a large majority of blacks think that racial discrimination against blacks is very (26 percent) or somewhat serious (35 percent) where they live, while only about a quarter of whites thought that racism was very (4 percent) or somewhat serious (21 percent). A whopping 56 percent of blacks and only 12 percent of whites thought racial discrimination was a very serious problem in the country.

Most whites also believe that blacks would do better if they would stop complaining about alleged acts of racial discrimination. Moreover, many whites believe that we would all “get along” if blacks would stop looking for handouts (for example, welfare, affirmative action, reparations) and simply work as hard as white people do. According to the same survey, a paltry 13 percent of whites, compared to 38 percent of blacks, think that “black have worse jobs, income and housing than white people” mostly because of discrimination.

Regardless of the cause, black’s perceptions of racial inequality are on the mark. On nearly every indicator of social and economic well-being, blacks lag far behind whites. According to the Census Bureau, 43 percent of America’s poor are black. The black unemployment rate is more than double the white unemployment rate. According to the independent activist organization, United for a Fair Economy, blacks make up nearly a quarter of the uninsured. Demos, a New York based policy think tank, report that blacks are being hit hard disproportionately by the sub-prime melt-down.

Claiming to not see race, that is, color-blindness, allows whites to explain away the persistence of racial inequality and the role race and ethnicity continues to play in shaping life chances and opportunities. A vote for Senator Obama will make many white people feel good about how color-blind they are and how far their (our) country has come.

But perhaps, most importantly, for many whites, an Obama victory will, once and for all, repudiate any claims made by blacks (or any other racial or ethnic group) that racism and white supremacy continues to shape and define American society.