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Bill Cosby on Thin Ice
by Seth Sandronsky
May 31, 2004

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I fondly remember when my mother took me to see Bill Cosby perform in the early 1970s. I was a teen and enjoyed myself immensely.

Mr. Cosby’s recent rant was also memorable. I did not enjoy it.

During an event to commemorate the 1954 anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Mr. Cosby blamed some African Americans for failing to get a formal education. In his view, their failure is a personal problem.

On that note, Mr. Cosby slammed some blacks’ nonstandard English. It is a separate language spoken while “standing on the corner,” he said.

Not quite, Mr. Cosby. In the words of linguist Geneva Smitherman, “Black Dialect is an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America's linguistic-cultural African heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression and life in America."

Ironically, the academic study of nonstandard dialects was one result of minority groups' demands for equal educational opportunity during the Civil Rights movement that Mr. Cosby used to indict some low-income blacks in 2004. This is so sad.

That great and glorious Movement of the 1950s and 1960s did mend for a brief time but did not end material inequality for African Americans. That leveling of that playing field faded slowly when the corporate counteroffensive began in the U.S. as the Vietnam War ended.

Both political parties joined this attack on the working majority, helping to break unions and fire strikers. Why?

U.S. corporations wanted increased rates of profitability for investment capital in the face of growing global competition. Mr. Cosby, do you recall this?

Blacks’ official joblessness has been more than double that of whites since 1973 in the U.S. For African American youth, bad has turned to worse in the job market.

In Naming the System: Work and Inequality in the Global Economy, Michael D. Yates writes “The unemployment rate for black male teenagers in many of the United States’ inner cities is as high as 50 percent. Housing discrimination and inadequate transportation make it difficult for these youth to leave the central cities.”

What do African Americans do when work exceeds their grasp due to the economics of white racism? Look no further than the U.S. prison population, the world’s biggest.

Some 2.1 million Americans are now being held behind bars. About half of them are blacks.

In brief, they and prisoners of all skin colors are surplus workers. These females and males locked down in the U.S. are not counted in government job reports.

An old German called such folks whose labor-power is unwanted by employers the reserve labor army. This army includes incarcerated people, the number of which has increased tenfold during the past 30 years in America.

Some black culture that Mr. Cosby critiqued reflects such a reality, the bitter life chances for many African Americans. These hapless folks are in many ways on the outside looking in.

They have scant chances of being hired as wage laborers. This process propels the system’s growth, meaning there is no place for many black workers to earn a wage in U.S. society.

This sad state of affairs did not happen overnight. Consider the African American workers who used to make footwear and earn union wages.

Such commodities are now made instead by Chinese laborers. They are paid sub-human wages to make athletic shoes that sell in U.S. stores for high prices.

What is Mr. Cosby’s response? He chides some black parents for buying high-priced shoes for their kids instead of education packages.

Such partial sight dovetails with Mr. Cosby’s critique of how some low-income African Americans talk. Apparently, he is unaware that some of their language such as multiple negation dates from Old English to Shakespeare's time.

Moreover, one’s speech is hardly what causes employers to create jobs, or to pay livable wages. The economics of the class conflict and not the linguistics of some low-income blacks is the driving force of employment.

The return on investment for bosses and shareholders is what drives job creation and job destruction. The business press is full of such analyses and reports.

Perhaps Mr. Cosby is tiring of such journalism. I suggest he read African American radicals such as Angela Davis and Manning Marable whose social analyses include race, gender and the two classes, capitalists and wage workers.

Overall, Mr. Cosby’s critique of some poor African Americans reveals his inability to see and “name the system.” His is a limited vision marked by his nearly unlimited access to the mainstream press.

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Peace Action and co-editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at:

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