Frayed Bootstraps in the Black Mecca

What the Judge and the Cos couldn't see in that all-black Atlanta courtroom.

(AP Photo/W.A. Haarewood)

“What kind of person,” Cosby near-shouted, “tries to tell you that you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Toward the end of the event Cosby fulminated that “Negroes fought for their rights, Negroes marched” – part of his long-running indictment that “black people” seem to have lost all the good bequeathed to them by noble Negro ancestors.

Joe Louis, Althea Gibson — those were the kind of Negroes who knew what time it was, he suggested, and the current crop of slackers have simply dropped the ball. Whatever the implications of that statement, you weren’t going to hear much dissent, not that night, not in that auditorium full of black degrees.

The young people I spoke to afterward unanimously agreed that Cosby was “telling the truth,” and one even went so far as to say that he would think twice before doing something that might shame his family or upset his mother. Parents shouted praise for Arrington and Cosby. Outside a cop told me, “This is the second time I’ve seen Cosby; he always brings the truth. I’m hoping that he can help make my job easier.”

No one in their right mind could disagree with “the truth,” but “truth” is precisely where things get complicated for these revivals. While self-help may be a virtue, it is not a policy. The “truth” is that the creation of the American middle class was the result of government initiatives like the G.I. Bill, the FDA and the National Highway Act, not any sepia-tinted mythology of immigrants and their bootstraps. It is possible to recognize the impact of racism without citing it as an “excuse” or claiming victim status.

We know, or ought to know, by now that moral demands have always been the weakest form of social reform. Black crime declined precipitously in the mid 1990s not because people had been inspired by Hollywood A-listers’ calls for self-respect, but because the economy was stronger.

Discussing the “truth” means acknowledging that human behavior is complicated and reckoning with the fact that poor circumstances generally yields poor outcomes. The “truth” is that we remember Joe Louis and Althea Gibson precisely because they were exceptional and the very rationale for black struggle in the 20th century was that racism robbed all but a handful of black people of a shot at that kind of success. If the black community of Cosby’s recollection really was defined by Louises and Gibsons there would have been no need for a March on Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. could’ve lived a long life devoted to baptizing babies and raising money for the Ebenezer building fund.

Part of Cosby’s appeal derives from a certain tolerance in the black community for self-flagellation. We listen because, like most congregations, we secretly want to be told how bad our sins are. Lamenting black failure is nearly a national past time and Cosby falls into a long tradition of uplift preachers who see lots of individual trees but deny the existence of a forest.

It is difficult to get at this kind of complexity when we want a simple, empowering answer to a terrible problem and it must be incredibly challenging for a person who sees the horrific effects of the problem every day. But this is the difference between “the truth” and the whole truth.

The point is that Judge Arrington was perfectly justified in closing off his courtroom and lecturing those young men. And he would be equally justified in issuing subpoenas to their parents and lecturing them, the principals of their failing schools, and the politicians who do not provide the resources for those schools. He can follow up with the police who are more likely to arrest young black males than their white counterparts and the employers who are less likely to hire them. In the name of equality, he should summon his considerable eloquence and talk until he has reduced them to the sweaty, remorseful sinners we know them to be and then conclude by summoning his judicial colleagues who hand those young men disproportionately long prison sentences when compared to whites who commit the same offenses. Because then – and only then – can we say that we are on the road to salvation.

William Jelani Cobb is associate professor of history at Spelman College and author of “The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays.