Saturday, December 01, 2007

Blogging Cosby (5 of 5)

Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint's Come on People is a necessary sermon to African Americans promoting black self-help. Their core message, contained in the subtitle, is that it is both possible and necessary for black Americans to change their attitude from victims to victors.

The meatiest chapters reflect the particular interests of the authors. Medical doctor Poussaint goes into detail about the particular health problems of African Americans, most of which are the direct result of lifestyle choices. TV star Cosby makes the case that media portrayals of black people were bad for a long time, got better when Bill Cosby was on TV (from I Spy to The Cosby Show) -- and then got worse. The book is shot through with laments about the self-inflicted wound of gangsta rap. I suspect that a major motivation for writing this book in the first place was when these two grandpas saw children their grandchildren's age singing along with horrible rap songs.

I noted before that Cosby and Poussaint pull their punches on marriage. This is even more notable, and consequential, in the concluding sections of the book. In the chapter on black health, they urge black women to make their "regular sex partners" wear condoms, because there is no telling who else they have been with. Marriage does not even appear in that chapter, and even the presumption of sexual fidelity is not on their radar. And these are the conservative old guys, who lavishly thank their wives in the acknowledgments!

The final chapter, "From Poverty to Prosperity," lists some of the main causes of black poverty in this country. "institutional racism, limited job opportunities, low minimum wage, mental illness, physical disabilities, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of a high school diploma, incarceration, and a criminal record." Their main solution: "education is the key for poor people."

On both points -- the main causes of poverty, and the main solution to the problem -- I have to disagree with Drs. Cosby and Poussaint. I think marriage is the fundamental human institution that helps people work out of poverty -- and makes them have the will to stick to it. As Cosby and Poussaint note in the opening chapter, in 1950, black and white marriage rates were the same. Now, when all of the external structural obstacles to black success are much less powerful than they were in 1950, the low black marriage rate is, I think, the main internal structural obstacle to black success.

Cosby and Poussaint have written a timely and necessary call to African American uplift. But they miss the single most important element of that call.

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