Bill Cosby Rants Against Ghetto Poor

The Crisis of Black Leadership

By Don Cane

Correction Appended

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 832, 17 September 2004.

America’s racist rulers like to dress up their rule in terms of general abstract slogans, pretending that they represent the “general will” of the nation. In fact they are a fabulously wealthy minority that lord over a hideously oppressive and unequal society with an unprecedented machinery of deception and repression. Central to this machinery is America’s color bar—the stigmatization of skin color, itself a product of black chattel slavery—obscuring pivotal class relations within American capitalist society.

This social reality is so evident it renders unbelievable the widely circulated quote from black Democrat Barack Obama, Illinois U.S. Senate candidate, in the keynote Democratic National Convention speech: “There’s not a Black America and White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” This is the big lie, that America has largely eliminated racism through civil rights laws leveling the playing field. Pandering to the demagogic truisms provoked by Bill Cosby’s recent anti-black diatribes, Obama adds, “Go into any inner-city neighborhood and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” With many ghetto schools deprived of funding for teaching materials, including books, there should be no fear that any black youth will be “acting white.”

With the deindustrialization of the economy beginning in the mid 1970s, education has become an increasingly expendable overhead for the U.S. capitalist rulers. They invest only as much as they can realize back in profit when it comes to the education of those they exploit. Indeed, even the term “public education” is an oxymoron when there are two “publics”—those who’ve got property and those who don’t. The built-in inequality of public school funding, based primarily on local property taxes, ensures that per-student spending in the better-off white suburbs will be much—often many times—higher than in the urban ghettos.

Cosby’s widely circulated quote, “Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day; it’s cursing and calling each other n----r,” amounts to blaming the victims for their own oppression. It reflects both the class divisions within the black population and the fact that black oppression transcends class lines. The cruel and bitter truth is that black ghetto youth are not wanted or needed by America’s capitalist rulers. By the same token, growing alienation among black youth is the product of hardening race segregation in this country.

The position of the black middle class in this country is a precarious one, even for those like Cosby who have “made it.” To be black and “make it”—to try to become part of “respectable” bourgeois society—requires putting as much distance as possible between yourself and the black ghetto poor. What better way to do that than to blame them for their own oppression? Cosby speaks for the thin layer of wealthy blacks who see the ghetto poor as “bringing the race down.”

Cosby, like many others, rightly opposes the casual use of the “N” word among blacks. On National Public Radio’s 7 July Talk of the Nation show he complained of the unhappy sounds of black kids: “Now you can tell me it’s the sound of the ’hood if you want to, but then when you put profanity with it, and degrading self-hatred sentences, you’ve got a problem.” But in response to another guest who denounced Black Entertainment Television making “billions” by “contributing to the degradation of our culture,” Cosby clearly defended capitalist enterprise in its entirety, responding, “You can do anything you want to in this United States. I can begin to sell—put a product out called Spit. And I can spit in a bottle and sell it.” Cosby is a true believer in the “magic of the market.” But it is within this capitalist market that “you’ve got a problem,” not the ’hood.

The new popularization of the “N” word is encouraged and promoted by America’s racist rulers by all means at their disposal, above all the capitalist market. The main revenues of the “gangsta rap” industry, shameless promoters of the “N” word, are generated in the white suburbs. The ideological campaign to “reclaim” the “N” word as a “term of endearment” is promoted by black intellectual apologists safely nestled in the universities.

The “N” word bluntly defines the race-color caste oppression of American blacks —oppressed as a people regardless of class. The Cosby family has direct experience with the “N” word as the cutting edge of racist reaction. In 1998, on the day after the conviction of the racist thug who murdered her son, Ennis, Camille Cosby, Bill’s wife, wrote a courageous USA Today commentary titled, “America Taught My Son’s Killer to Hate Blacks” (8 July 1998). She wrote, “All African-Americans, regardless of their educational and economic accomplishments, have been and are at risk in America simply because of their skin colors. Sadly, my family and I experienced that to be one of America’s racial truths.” She described how her son, Ennis Cosby, heir to a fortune, was murdered in a “middle- to upper-middle-income, predominately white community” by a white racist thug who boasted, “I shot a n----r. It’s all over the news.” A howl of right-wing protest answered Camille Cosby’s simple statement of “America’s racial truths,” repeatedly reminding the Cosbys of the class position awarded them.

Racist ideologue David Horowitz led the mob, penning a widely circulated hit piece titled “Mrs. Cosby’s Racial Paranoia.” With great venom he wrote, “What can be said about a mother who exploits the tragic death of her own son to deliver a racist diatribe against a nation that has showered her with privilege, making her family wealthy and famous beyond the wildest dreams of almost anyone alive...?” Though Julian Bond, then president of the NAACP, rose to her defense, he was the rare exception among black leaders. But Camille Cosby stood her ground against the mob of white racist media hit men. In a reply (posted on, she mentioned a “letter to the editor” she had written that the New York Times refused to print. She made this revealing point: the Times coverage of the killer’s trial excluded the inflammatory epithet, n----r. Cosby wrote of the Times “sanitizing the word ‘n----r’ with ‘black man’ in paraphrase.” Camille Cosby rendered a service to black America and the working class with these revelations. The same cannot be said of her husband.

Village Voice writer Ta-Nehisi Coates noted that the philanthropist Bill Cosby has played for some time “one ugly role that his activist friends like to ignore—patron saint of black elitists” (Village Voice, 26 May-1 June). Who are his “activist friends”? The NAACP Image Awards, black America’s biggest awards show, is as obsessed as Cosby is with “keeping up appearances.” Coates correctly observed, “The civil rights crowd has had a rough 30 years as the old tactics of marching and boycotting have come up lame. Its leaders, like Cosby himself, are in winter, and having beaten Bull Connerism, they now stand befuddled and silenced before their greatest new adversary—class.” He goes on to note, “They ignore the ghetto or, when emboldened like Cosby, shit on it.” For regular readers of Workers Vanguard, Coates only confirms what we have long said of the Democratic Party black front men and misleaders. But the class adversary is not new; it is historic. American capitalist class rule and exploitation of wage slavery are based on a foundation of what Marx called the “primitive accumulation of capital,” derived from another form of class exploitation—chattel slavery. From the old slavemaster to today’s capitalist, the fight for black freedom has confronted the adversary of class.

Class relations reveal themselves in many ways, one of which is how different classes and social strata use the common language of political economy—within the U.S., this is English. At last year’s Emmy awards, when he was asked what accounted for his and other early black comics’ success, an annoyed Cosby replied, “We spoke English.” But Cosby seeks to distance himself from the Black English (Ebonics) dialect of his early comic characters. With a net worth of some $500 million, Cosby is fond of referring to the oppressed black masses trapped in the ghetto as a “lower economic area,” “lower economic people,” etc. But what intimately connects Cosby with these “lower economic people” is the special race-color caste oppression of American blacks—the anti-black racism targeting all blacks as a people regardless of class. This oppression is based on skin color and finds many social expressions, above all in language, the Black English dialect. It is this dialect that Cosby hates so intensely.

The demagogue Cosby cannot shed his skin, but he can denigrate a dialect that he shares with all classes of American blacks. John McWhorter, Cosby defender and author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, candidly revealed this truth: “Bill Cosby speaks more ebonics than he knows..., and people don’t want to hear it. It’s not their favorite flavor” (Oakland Tribune, 8 August). The Black English dialect is the most reviled dialect of American English, yet linguistic studies reveal that this same dialect has by far the greatest impact of all American dialects on standard speech. Standard American English is peppered with words and phrases, such as “cool,” “dude” and so on, derived from the Black English dialect.

This influence is historic as well. Charles Dickens and travelers in the pre-Civil War slaveholding South noted that the slaves had a significant effect on the speech of their white masters. One such traveler wrote: “It must be confessed, to the shame of the White population of the South, that they perpetuate many of these pronunciations in common with their Negro dependents” (Robert McCrum, The Story of English [Viking Penguin, 1986]). This is all evidence of the race-color caste oppression of American blacks. American blacks are the most American of Americans, shaping culture past and present. But with blacks forcibly segregated on the bottom of American society, their contributions and influences are met with loathsome rejection and denial.

The “soft target” for anti-black racism today is the “Hip-Hop culture” of black ghetto youth and its reflection in Black English. During a May 26 interview with NPR reporter Tavis Smiley, Cosby remarked, “It’s a new language in the area, and it’s only good for the people you come in contact [sic] living in that area. It’s no good on Wall Street.” Smiley pointed out that Cosby’s comic characters, Fat Albert and Mush Mouth, “weren’t speaking perfect English.” But this irony was lost on Cosby, who responded, “Hey, man, I’m a millionaire.” Remarking on Cosby’s state of mind, black comic Dave Chappelle said, “no one is as uncomfortable as a black man with money.” Indeed Cosby seems obsessed with his image of a black millionaire. Coates of the Village Voice speculated that “whenever he walked into a cocktail party and a stuffed shirt made a joke about Ebonics, his self-image crumpled from the hit.”

In this spirit in 1997 Cosby wrote an anti-black satirical opinion piece, “Elements of Igno-Ebonics Style,” in the Wall Street Journal (10 January 1997), the major mouthpiece of U.S. financial capital. Cosby’s ostensible target was the Oakland, California School Board, which had passed a controversial resolution to teach black youth standard English using Ebonics. It was a ploy to squeeze more funding for the financially starved school district. As we stated at the time (“Desperation, Segregation and the ‘Ebonics’ Controversy,” WV No. 660, 24 January 1997): “There should be programs that can provide a bridge in teaching these kids what is called ‘standard American English,’ without disparaging or demeaning their home dialect, for the simple reason that to get anywhere in this society you need to speak the language of the political economy.”

Bill Cosby’s article was simply his contribution to the storm of racist reaction, the flood of derisive imitations of “black speech” parroting every vile racist stereotype. This vicious response showed why Black English as spoken by the current generation of ghetto youth is the language of despair and defiance of a society they know doesn’t give a damn about them.

In the May 26 NPR interview, Smiley remarked that some have called Cosby’s remarks “rooted in generational warfare.” Cosby responds, “Might be generational warfare if they want war.” Bill Cosby, “America’s father,” hates black ghetto youth and the language they speak—this is his message to his Wall Street friends. To someone like Cosby, nothing stands in the way of black youth moving forward except themselves; Cosby’s demeaning and disparaging attacks on Ebonics reflect his contempt for the ghetto poor.

Cosby’s threat of war is not idle; he has many influential defenders and friends. Russell Simmons, organizer of the pro-Democratic Party “Hip-Hop Team Vote,” got a call from Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan’s message was that in the work of lining up black youth as Democratic voting cattle, Cosby should be treated “like a father.” The black left personified in Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson genuflect to “Dr. Cosby” before and after each tepid criticism. In interviews with Smiley, West announced that Cosby was “acknowledging the humanity of black people,” while Dyson said, “if anybody has earned his ability to say what he has to say, it’s Mr. Cosby.” Former president Bill Clinton—who threw thousands of poor off the welfare rolls into homelessness and under whose administration unprecedented numbers of black youth were jailed—proclaimed, “Cosby did a service to black America and to all Americans.” In a commentary, “Bill Cosby and the Flap That Wasn’t,”’s editorial director reported that he managed to find three black columnists who wrote “rather mild rebuffs of Cosby,” but that after Cosby called one up, he “wrote a second column further qualifying his already qualified gibes.”

Why is Bill Cosby so untouchable? He is a black American icon that has served well the ideological needs of America’s racist rulers. Disappearing the seething black ghetto masses, The Cosby Show’s Huxtable family lived a model upper-middle-class existence few American blacks—or working-class whites—have ever known. They were palatable across race lines, addressing all the standard sit-com topics. The show avoided controversy, including race. In an earlier show with Tavis Smiley, Cosby described one high point of controversy. One Huxtable child had a sign on his bedroom door: “Abolish Apartheid.” Some network people objected to the sign. Cosby, the much-touted anti-apartheid activist, stood his ground, “it was not even a second thought. It wasn’t even a clenched fist.... It was just very, very simple: If you take the sign down, there’s no show.” Cosby noted also, “that was at the peak of the apartheid going down quickly, and Mandela being released from jail.” The black African working class, with blood and sacrifice, smashed apartheid, and, with the deed just about done, the tepid liberal Cosby feels safe to defend a sign. But what made the Huxtable home was not the bedroom sign, but the “warm and fuzzy” house where, according to a Roper poll, one-third of America would most like to live.

Cosby is also an important Democratic Party supporter, backing the candidacies of several black Democratic pols, including Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson Jr. At a 1999 fund-raiser for Al Gore’s presidential race Cosby held up for the amusement of his well-heeled audience the autographed size 22 shoe of Los Angeles Lakers all-star Shaquille O’Neal. There were no nasty remarks about weird names and expensive basketball shoes now. This shoe and name helped raise $250,000 for Al Gore’s coffers. This election year, Al Sharpton and black Congressional caucus members met with Cosby on September 8 in a show of support for Cosby’s diatribes (San Francisco Chronicle, 9 September).

San Francisco Bay View writer Khalil Tian Shahyd was close to the mark when she complained that Cosby’s assertions are taken as fact: “This is part of the media selection of our voices, of those who represent and interpret our reality—which is why Al Sharpton feels he can run for president, why Jesse Jackson dares to come outside anymore. Because they are chosen by those outside our communities to speak for us” (San Francisco Bay View, 14 July). They are chosen by America’s capitalist rulers. They are beholden to the Democratic Party and big money men such as Bill Cosby.

But what was visited first on the black population is now becoming an increasing reality for all workers in America. This fact underscores the depth of treachery of the labor movement’s official misleaders, whose allegiance to the Democratic Party goes hand in hand with their acceptance of the racist status quo. The situation cries out for a class-struggle fight for all workers and the poor, a fight that can link the power of labor to the anger of the ghettos. This is the perspective of revolutionary integrationism. In order to change the systematic denigration and degradation of black youth trapped in ever more hellish conditions, their labor power and their thinking power has to be truly valued. To achieve that requires shattering the entire system of racist American capitalism. This is the urgent task of a much-needed, multiracial revolutionary workers party.


In "Bill Cosby Rants Against Ghetto Poor: The Crisis of Black Leadership" by Don Cane (WV No. 832, 17 September), it was incorrectly stated that Julian Bond was president of the NAACP in 1998. He was the chairman of the board; Kweisi Mfume (who just announced his plans to resign) was the president and CEO. A May 26 interview with Bill Cosby by Tavis Smiley was a PBS television, not National Public Radio, broadcast. The article also misidentified Khalil Tian Shahyd, author of a San Francisco Bay View article, as female. (Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 838, 10 December 2004.)

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