The notion of “You’ve got to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” has been transferred to educated and privileged blacks into what I like to call the Bill Cosby and Michael Eric Dyson debate. You may recall the comedian, during a 2004 meeting in Washington D.C., commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, made some remarks that were sharply critical of the African American poor.
Cosby charged, “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 and gained momentum when Black America and Professor Michael Eric Dyson took sides.
Professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of “Is Bill Cosby Right?”, fired back that most Black Americans agree with the importance of personal responsibility, education, a strong work ethic and morals but Bill Cosby’s assertion makes it seem as if personal responsibility alone will change the lot of blacks in poverty. Dyson contends that by convincing poor blacks that their lot in life is purely of their own making, Cosby overlooks the big social factors that continue to reinforce poverty such as dramatic shifts in the economy, low wages, chronic underemployment, downsizing and outsourcing, failing inner-city schools, subpar housing, predatory lending and a very recent history of policies that were intended create wealth among whites not blacks.
Cosby’s message is one that would suggest that black poverty would only end when and if black people took responsibility for changing their lives. The idea that people are choosing to take from the system without standing on their own laurels and recognizing personal responsibility signals that folks on both the far right and center have some things in common. But this all just feels like a trap. The real debate should not be about whether or not personal responsibility should be more dominate but rather about the ideals espoused by the American Dream, the national ethos about prosperity being available to everyone so long as they work hard.
The idea that any person – so long as they have the determination and personal responsibility - can be a rich person with butlers, nannies, drivers and yard workers that make $10 an hour seems to gloss over the workforce of low wage workers this Dream is resourcing. This duality is the truth of the American Dream and the investment in this vision is so rigid that virtually any policy that could get close to leveling the playing field is admonished.
Spiritual faiths talk about this concept as good versus bad and righteous versus evil in an attempt to explain this great polarity. It is said that in order to know one’s self as good a person would have to set themselves against all that they are not or all that is bad. In the American Dream ethos, in order to have prosperity you have to have poverty. This, inescapable consequence of the human experience constantly pits us against our opposites which in turn makes us feel good about ourselves.
Back to the man at the hotel, his words know fading into the background of my own thoughts. Perhaps the American Dream should simply be to do no harm to one’s self or the people and places around us I thought. The idea that the American Dream could be redefined was shaken by the rise in the mans voice. He was angry. Perhaps he was not concerned with the passing of healthcare legislation or his perception that access to healthcare would create a group of people who have become more dependent on hand outs, rather he was afraid that if the people who are currently poor stopped being poor then it just might be his turn after all that is the American Dream.
Submitted by: Jessica Norwood
The ideas relayed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the Emerging ChangeMakers Network or its membership.
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Cartoon reprinted from nicholsoncartoons.com.au