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The Afro-Culture Wars: Bill Cosby vs. Michael Eric Dyson Cultural Criticism as Pseudo-analysis, Pt. 1,

The great deficiency of the Negro, however, is his small knowledge of the art of social life; that last expression of human culture. His development in group life was abruptly broken off by the slave ship, directed into abnormal channels, and dwarfed by the Black Codes, and suddenly wrenched anew by the Emancipation Proclamation. He finds himself, therefore, peculiarly weak in that nice adaptation of individual life to the life of the group which is the essence of civilization. This is shown in the grosser forms of sexual immorality, disease and crime, and also in the difficulty of race organization for common ends economic or in intellectual lines.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Study of the Negro Problems (1898)

So, what’s the difference between what DuBois wrote over a hundred years ago and what Bill Cosby said last year? Nothing much, except that DuBois offered his views in an obscure essay. Cosby, however, had the temerity to criticize the “lower economic people” for not keeping up their “end of the deal” at a NAACP gala celebrating a dead letter: the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision that struck down segregation in public schools. Cosby’s greatest sin is being a black celebrity and saying it in public.

Cosby said unkind things about the poor, but what he said was forty years too late and didn’t include the black elite. Michael Eric Dyson, however, in his latest book—Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind (Perseus, 2005)—makes an issue of Cosby saying anything at all.


Cosby has never really dealt with race identity issues in his comedy. His error, according to Dyson, is that Cosby’s career has been built on the naïve avoidance of race in his comedy—i.e., the sin of “colorblindness.” Or put another way, Cosby is guilty of using his comedy as a mirror reflecting what King advocated, namely judging people by the contents of their character, or, in this matter, by the contents of one’s comedic sensibilities.

Dyson, as a cultural critic, builds his case on an anemic intellectual scaffold. Since comedy is an aspect of culture, and since Cosby hasn’t given voice to his definition of “blackness,” Cosby, therefore, cannot speak in the public realm about black people, or at least the black poor. As an expert in blackness, Dyson views Cosby as not having “been practiced or articulate in matters of public negotiation with subtleties, nuances and complexities of racial rhetoric.” But Dyson, of course, is. If this isn’t elitist posturing, it doesn’t exist.

After Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson is America’s foremost second-bench market intellectual. As a cynical new breed of so-called black public intellectual, he has made a career of marketing himself as a “public intellectual” while cranking out meretricious work that wouldn’t pass as serious scholarship (i.e., it has no depth of knowledge). West himself has touted Dyson as the academy’s “most talented rhetorical acrobat,” which could be interpreted as praise for a sophist (a.k.a. a bullshit artist). Dyson’s work is glib enough to pass as “cultural criticism,” which means learning the right amount of so-called critical theory/cultural studies lexicon and dropping such terms on any black subject matter. Academics such as Henry Louis Gates, West, bell hooks and others have made careers doing this, and it may explain why blacks no longer have a clue as to what’s going on. Black intellectuals don’t care about real problems; they are into theory and pop culture. Unfortunately, this kind of criticism has given black conservative intellectuals a perch to do their jobs—that is, to give a rationalization for the conservative social and political agenda.

Dyson has cornered the market on “blackness” or racial identity formation. No longer concerned with socio-political issues or political, social, or economic organizations, market intellectuals such as Dyson pimp racial identity as a constituent element of African American social being or organization. Dyson’s bailiwick is black popular culture and he has written several pseudo-biographies of Marvin Gaye, Martin Luther King, Tupac Shakur, and Malcolm X; several books navigating racial or color line; or why he loves black women (as if anybody real cares); hip-hop; collections of his essays. Now, he’s done a book on Bill Cosby. Had Cosby not made his attack on lower-class social dysfunction, it’s doubtful that Dyson would have written book about him or in “defense” of the poor.

Dyson’s books, more so than Cosby’s intemperate outburst, underscores that effective black politics and black civil society have either collapsed or have severely weakened in the last forty years. Blacks would rather debate critical socio-political problems in the realm of cultural criticism rather than as problems to solve.

Or put another way, blacks have developed their own culture wars over the plight of the underclass, or issues regarding Ebonics, hip-hop, etc. There’s no real political will among blacks to address real problems, especially the problem of social dysfunction that afflicts a quarter of the black population, or the problems faced by those who can’t find work or by those who are poor but are working (see David Shipler’s The Working Poor).

If you doubt this, consider the following: not one major meeting, conference, or series of meetings has been called by black elected officials, intellectuals, or activists to deal with the very issues Cosby raised. There has been no collective response from Africans Americans in regard to dealing with the black poor. That this hasn’t happened is perhaps the reason why some black intellectuals think that they have to respond to the intemperate outburst of a grumpy old black man. But this isn’t just any old grumpy black man.

Bill Cosby’s outburst could been seen as one of frustration, a collective one: forty years later America and black people still have the poor to deal with. Dyson spends a lot of time criticizing Cosby for what’s been a cottage industry for years: the foibles of the black underclass. But Dyson doesn’t really add anything to the debate; he merely constructs his book around the “text” of Cosby’s speech and adds a series of rejoinders that says more about him than Cosby. What the book tells us about Dyson is that he, like most pseudo-intellectuals of the black cultural criticism school, is a superficial thinker. He actually believes he’s doing important work: responding to a public figure whose major role is still one of being a comedian.

His terminology for the black elite is the “Afristocracy,” while ghetto dwellers form a “Ghettocracy.” Both terms say nothing because they do not seriously delineate how they are different from previous sociological terms. What makes “Afristocracy” different from the “black bourgeoisie” or the “black elite?" Nothing. Old tomes such as Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie and Oliver Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race tried to give a broader understanding of such categories.

Why should we expect a comedian or a comedian’s TV show to deal with reality, or with the problems of race or poverty? This is Dyson’s critique of Cosby in the first chapter of his book, "Speaking of Race—Or Not.” Cosby just isn’t black enough; he doesn’t talk about race; hasn’t struggled over race; or at least has avoided it in his stand-up comedy and television shows. Not wanting to resort to racial essentialism, Dyson pulls back and engages in enough analytical equivocating to cancel out his previous assertions about Cosby’s lack of blackness. What are offered are thumbnail sketches regarding “styles” or “strategies” of racial identities, but in reality this is nothing but pseudo-analysis masquerading as critical analysis. It’s the kind of slick posturing that gets pseudo-intellectuals like Dyson on radio and TV shows. And it does work.

That Dyson refuses to even mention Cosby’s donation of $20 million to Spelman College, a black women’s school, underscores how essentially unbalanced the work is. Cosby’s philanthropy undercuts Dyson’s essential arguments about Cosby—that he doesn’t care about black people. Not willing to concede Cosby has a right to comment like anyone else about things in the public domain, Dyson glibly dismisses Cosby’s philanthropy, comparing it to saying that it’s “all right to rape a young lady because you’ve given a million dollars to a women’s college.” If Cosby doesn’t really care about the plight of black people, why did he offer a reward regarding information about Tawana Brawley’s alleged abduction and rape? Dyson, however, says nothing about this. Why? It undermines his bill of indictment regarding Bill.

Yet, it’s astounding that in a chapter that speaks so much about blackness or “stages” of racial identities or “strategies” (“accidental blackness,” “incidental blackness,” “intentional blackness”) in the post-civil right era, Dyson says nothing—zilch— about Michael Jackson. Dyson refers to other blacks (including Colin Powell or Barack Obama) as examples of racial maneuvering, but Jackson, a man who has made a career of racial evisceration, is curiously missing. Jackson cynically hides behind his strategy of blackness when he gets into trouble and has had more of a public problem with other people’s children, especially if they’re white, than Cosby has had with talking about the children of the black poor. (Perhaps this will be Dyson’s next book—if the Gloved One is found guilty.)

Everyone knows that roughly 25% of the black population continues to be mired in contemporary variations of “the grosser forms of sexual immorality, disease and crime” that DuBois described. It’s a legacy from slavery and that percentage was nearly four times greater than the present 25% when DuBois wrote the above essay. It has lessened due to the civil rights movement and government programs. Yet the promises of the last forty years have evaporated and blacks themselves have retreated from concerted and organized social and political efforts. Instead we have the Afro-culture wars in which the problems of social disorganization have been reduced to emotional outburst and cultural pimping.

One of the unintended consequences of integration has been the weakening of black civil society; the black middle class has spatially distanced itself from the poor and the working class. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Decline and Renewal of American Communities looks at this problem of civil society weakening across the board in American society. Putnam found that inner-city blacks have less social trust than any other demographic. Another book, an edited collection of essays with the rather prosaic title of Black Political Organizations in the Post-Civil Rights Era, has examined the decline of civil rights organization within the last forty years. Blacks themselves have succumbed to a nostalgia about black “togetherness” prior to the civil rights movement, or they have become victims of the “curse of community,” as Adolph Reed has termed it—the belief that blacks don’t have distinct class interests and act upon them.

The fact that blacks have not sought to engage in self-generated internal redevelopment within America’s urban bantustans may explain what has happened, and why 25% of African Americans are still stuck in poverty and social disorganization. No one has sought to significantly organize the poor since the demise of SNCC, the Black Panthers, or the National Welfare Rights Organization. It’s well understood that a number of white Americans are no longer interested in true racial equality or ending poverty; that costs too much. But what about African Americans: do they understand that they the current state of American politics is a state of political war?

Yet this is a state of political war in which their leaders have retreated, in which their political mobilization has atrophied while extreme conservatism has even a tighter grip on American public and social discourse and political institutions. That Bill Clinton has even provisionally endorsed the Million Man March 2.0 ought to tell you something. It’s all show, but with no substantial political mobilization or thinking through old problems with new ideas. Once upon a time black intellectuals used to write and talk about real issues. Now they just entertain us.

So what are we left with? Clearly the bonds of solidarity and community standards that once sustained blacks have withered, and this has left the poor in the target sights of many. On one hand we have a rich, grumpy, old black man. Cosby may genuinely be the last angry black man, and for good reasons. But his critique of what he calls “the deal” didn’t go far enough. On the other hand, we have a pseudo-intellectual cut-and-paste job that tries to pass as social criticism, but actually provides rationalization for some aspects of lower class social dysfunction. In the end, everyone has not kept up their “end of the deal” in regard to how we treat those who reside at the bottom of the well.


Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2005

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