2004-07-23 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the Editor’s Desk

Late last month, I was one of the speakers at “Career Day” at Middle School 53 in Far Rockaway, a school where I had worked for nearly 20 years prior to my retirement from the school system.

In one session, I was paired with Curtis Archer, the highly-respected director of the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation (RDRC), the agency that runs the summer employment program in Rockaway.

When I finished speaking about journalism and what the career demands in terms of education and commitment, Archer took the floor to talk about what it takes to get a job in general.

He gave some good advice about resumes, dress, language and attitude when applying for a job.

One student challenged him, however.

“Why do you want us to act white to get a job,” the young man fairly yelled at him as if he was an enemy. “I ain’t acting white just to get some job.”

There was a lot of agreement in the room from other young, Black males.

I later asked the class what “acting white” really meant. I told them I was confused by the term, even though I really did know what they were saying and only wanted to get them to talk about it.

“Using white English,” one said. “Nobody talk like that in the hood.”

“Dressing white,” another said. “You know, shirt and tie. Polished shoes.”

“Doing good in school,” said a third. “Doing homework, getting good grades.”

I pointed out, that to get a job in any field, a candidate had to speak proper English, dress appropriately for the job and have decent grades in school.”

“I ain’t ever gonna work for you,” one young man joked.

He is probably right.

If to “act white” means to act like the mainstream of Americans, and black young men and women are rejecting “acting white,” then the black community is truly in trouble.

Which brings us to Bill Cosby, the black comedian and community activist.

Cosby caused consternation in the black community in May while speaking at Howard University on the anniversary of “Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka,” a Supreme Court decision that ended the “Separate But Equal” doctrine in America.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic people are not holding up their end of the deal,” he said. “These people are not parenting. They are buying things for their kids — $500 sneakers. For what?”

Speaking of the kids that come from these families, Cosby said, “They’re standing on the street corner and they can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t? Where you is?’ 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 crap coming out of your mouth.”

“There are people going around stealing coca cola,” he reportedly added. “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 is he doing with the [stolen] cake in his hand?”

Cosby was attacked by many black groups for his comments. Liberal newspapers throughout the country riled against his “elitism,” and his inability to understand the inner-city minority community.

In early July, Cosby struck back at those who defended the black community against his charges.

He said that the community was only trying to “hide its dirty laundry.”

“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_____ as they’re walking up and down the street,” Cosby told an audience as the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition annual convention. “They think they’re hip. They can’t read; they can’t write; they’re laughing and they’re giggling and they’re going nowhere.”

Cosby got applause from the mostly-black audience when he said, “We simply cannot blame whites for problems such as teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates. For me, there is a time when we turn the mirror around.”

“You’ve got to stop beating up on 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 added. “You should have thought more about yourself when you were in high school, when you had the opportunity.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in the Village Voice, was one of those who took Cosby to task for his comments.

“”Let’s not act like Cosby’s points are baseless. Here in New York, black activists rail against the evils of Giulianism, but shrink from confronting drug dealers,” she wrote. “That said, Cosby’s critique betrays his own narcissism – like the dandies who worship him, he fancies himself an everyman, but he’s embarrassed by everymen.”

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmon’s whose industry was one of those attacked by Cosby as bringing anti-society messages to young black people, said, “The real profanity is in the poverty and ignorance not only in our community, but in the trailer parks all over the nation,” Simmons said. “There is a struggle and we need to address that struggle.”

Black author and columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson said that Cosby is wrong in his comments about black people and that he is putting that community in a bad light.

“Look, we can all agree that the gap between black and white students is too wide and that black-on-black crime is unacceptable,” he wrote. “But Cosby – a multimillionaire – is way out of line in trying to pin these tired stereotypes on all poor black youth, without any acknowledgement that many young blacks and their parents are striving to achieve and, indeed, are achieving, often against terrible odds.”

“They [Cosby’s charges] blame the victim, adding credence to the idea that the problems of poor blacks are self-inflicted,” he concluded.

Paul DuBois wrote a letter to Newsday that sums up the response of many, both black and white, on the situation.

Responding to Hutchinson’s column,

Dubois wrote that the column was a “typical knee-jerk reaction.”

“Hutchinson has only to stroll down the Fulton Street Mall in Brooklyn or Jamaica Avenue in Queens to know that Cosby’s observations are on point and valid,” Dubois wrote. “Statistics are beautiful; the reality of the street is not.”

The same is true of Rockaway.

Judging by the experience in the Middle School classroom recently, I would believe that many of the problems of poor Rockaway blacks are, indeed, self-inflicted and that the black community and black leadership should address that issue as soon as possible. I have been saying just that for years in this space, but now that Bill Cosby has said it, it becomes, all at once, acceptable for debate.

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