The Pound Cake Speech.

The ‘pound cake speech’ comes up in conversation a lot around here, so we figure we should put it up for the people who were unfamiliar with its content.

A lot of people agreed with what Cosby said in his speech; we were not among them.

Ladies and gentlemen, I really have to ask you to seriously consider what you’ve heard, and now this is the end of the evening so to speak. I heard a prize fight manager say to his fellow who was losing badly, “David, listen to me. It’s not what’s he’s doing to you. It’s what you’re not doing.”
Ladies and gentlemen, these people set — they opened the doors, they gave us the right, and today, ladies and gentlemen, in our cities and public schools we have 50% drop out. In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.

Ladies and gentlemen, the lower- economic and lower-middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal. In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. In the old days, you couldn’t hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had one and where you got it from. Parents don’t know that today.

I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? And where is his father, and why don’t you know where he is? And why doesn’t the father show up to talk to this boy?

The church is only open on Sunday. And you can’t keep asking Jesus to ask doing things for you. You can’t keep asking that God will find a way. God is tired of you. God was there when they won all those cases — fifty in a row. That’s where God was because these people were doing something. And God said, “I’m going to find a way.” I wasn’t there when God said it — I’m making this up. But it sounds like what God would do.

We cannot blame white people. White people — White people don’t live over there. They close up the shop early. The Korean ones still don’t know us as well — they stay open 24 hours.

I’m looking and I see a man named Kenneth Clark, he and his wife Mamie. Kenneth’s still alive. I have to apologize to him for these people because Kenneth said it straight. He said you have to strengthen yourselves, and we’ve got to have that black doll. And everybody said it. Julian Bond said it. Dick Gregory said it. All these lawyers said it. And you wouldn’t know that anybody had done a damned thing.

Fifty-percent dropout rate, I’m telling you, and people in jail, and women having children by five, six different men. Under what excuse? “I want somebody to love me.” And as soon as you have it, you forget to parent. Grandmother, mother, and great grandmother in the same room, raising children, and the child knows nothing about love or respect of any one of the three of them. All this child knows is “gimme, gimme, gimme.” These people want to buy the friendship of a child, and the child couldn’t care less. Those of us sitting out here who have gone on to some college or whatever we’ve done, we still fear our parents. And these people are not parenting. They’re buying things for the kid — $500 sneakers — for what? They won’t buy or spend $250 onHooked on Phonics.

Kenneth Clark, somewhere in his home in upstate New York — just looking ahead. Thank God he doesn’t know what’s going on. Thank God. But these people — the ones up here in the balcony fought so hard. Looking at the incarcerated, 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! Then we all run out and are outraged: “The cops shouldn’t have shot him.” What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else. And I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said if you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.” Not, “You’re going to get your butt kicked.” No. “You’re going to embarrass your mother.” “You’re going to embarrass your family.” “If you knock that girl up, you’re going to have to run away because it’s going to be too embarrassing for your family.” In the old days, a girl getting pregnant had to go down South, and then her mother would go down to get her. But the mother had the baby. I said the mother had the baby. The girl didn’t have a baby. The mother had the baby in two weeks. We are not parenting.

Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people. They are showing you what’s wrong. People putting their clothes on backwards. Isn’t that a sign of something going on wrong? Are you not paying attention? People with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? Isn’t it a sign of something when she’s got her dress all the way up to the crack — and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body. What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail. (When we give these kinds names to our children, we give them the strength and inspiration in the meaning of those names. What’s the point of giving them strong names if there is not parenting and values backing it up).

Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. We’ve got to take the neighborhood back. We’ve got to go in there. Just forget telling your child to go to the Peace Corps. It’s right around the corner. It’s standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. It doesn’t want to speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: “Why you ain’t where you is go, ra.” I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with, “Why you ain’t…” You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. There is no Bible that has that kind of language. Where did these people get the idea that they’re moving ahead on this? Well, they know they’re not; they’re just hanging out in the same place, five or six generations sitting in the projects when you’re just supposed to stay there long enough to get a job and move out.

Now, look, I’m telling you. It’s not what they’re doing to us. It’s what we’re not doing. Fifty percent drop out. Look, we’re raising our own ingrown immigrants. These people are fighting hard to be ignorant. There’s no English being spoken, and they’re walking and they’re angry. Oh God, they’re angry and they have pistols and they shoot and they do stupid things. And after they kill somebody, they don’t have a plan. Just murder somebody. Boom. Over what? A pizza? And then run to the poor cousin’s house.

They sit there and the cousin says, “What are you doing here?”

“I just killed somebody, man.”


“I just killed somebody; I’ve got to stay here.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, give me some money, I’ll go….”

“Where are you going?”

“North Carolina.”

Everybody wanted to go to North Carolina. But the police know where you’re going because your cousin has a record.

Five or six different children — same woman, eight, ten different husbands or whatever. Pretty soon you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to. You don’t who this is. It might be your grandmother. I’m telling you, they’re young enough. Hey, you have a baby when you’re twelve. Your baby turns thirteen and has a baby, how old are you? Huh? Grandmother. By the time you’re twelve, you could have sex with your grandmother, you keep those numbers coming. I’m just predicting.

I’m saying Brown versus the Board of Education. We’ve got to hit the streets, ladies and gentlemen. I’m winding up, now — no more applause. I’m saying, look at the Black Muslims. There are Black Muslims standing on the street corners and they say so forth and so on, and we’re laughing at them because they have bean pies and all that, but you don’t read, “Black Muslim gunned down while chastising drug dealer.” You don’t read that. They don’t shoot down Black Muslims. You understand me. Muslims tell you to get out of the neighborhood. When you want to clear your neighborhood out, first thing you do is go get the Black Muslims, bean pies and all. And your neighborhood is then clear. The police can’t do it.

I’m telling you Christians, what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you hit the streets? Why can’t you clean it out yourselves? It’s our time now, ladies and gentlemen. It is our time. And I’ve got good news for you. It’s not about money. It’s about you doing something ordinarily that we do — get in somebody else’s business. It’s time for you to not accept the language that these people are speaking, which will take them nowhere. What the hell good is Brown V. Board of Education if nobody wants it?

What is it with young girls getting after some girl who wants to still remain a virgin? Who are these sick black people and where did they come from and why haven’t they been parented to shut up? To go up to girls and try to get a club where “you are nobody….” This is a sickness, ladies and gentlemen, and we are not paying attention to these children. These are children. They don’t know anything. They don’t have anything. They’re homeless people. All they know how to do is beg. And you give it to them, trying to win their friendship. And what are they good for? And then they stand there in an orange suit and you drop to your knees: “He didn’t do anything. He didn’t do anything.” Yes, he did do it. And you need to have an orange suit on, too.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for the award — and giving me an opportunity to speak because, I mean, this is the future, and all of these people who lined up and done — they’ve got to be wondering what the hell happened. Brown V. Board of Education — these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English. I know that you all know it. I just want to get you as angry that you ought to be. When you walk around the neighborhood and you see this stuff, that stuff’s not funny. These people are not funny anymore. And that‘s not my brother. And that’s not my sister. They’re faking and they’re dragging me way down because the state, the city, and all these people have to pick up the tab on them because they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education.

We have to begin to build in the neighborhood, have restaurants, have cleaners, have pharmacies, have real estate, have medical buildings instead of trying to rob them all. And so, ladies and gentlemen, please, Dorothy Height, where ever she’s sitting, she didn’t do all that stuff so that she could hear somebody say “I can’t stand algebra, I can’t stand…” and “what you is.” It’s horrible.

Basketball players —multimillionaires can’t write a paragraph. Football players, multimillionaires, can’t read. Yes. Multimillionaires. Well, Brown v. Board of Education, where are we today? It’s there. They paved the way. What did we do with it? The White Man, he’s laughing — got to be laughing. 50-percent drop out — rest of them in prison.

You got to tell me that if there was parenting — help me — if there was parenting, he wouldn’t have picked up the Coca -Cola bottle and walked out with it to get shot in the back of the head. He wouldn’t have. Not if he loved his parents. And not if they were parenting! Not if the father would come home. Not if the boy hadn’t dropped the sperm cell inside of the girl and the girl had said, “No, you have to come back here and be the father of this child.” Not “I don’t have to.”

Therefore, you have the pile up of these sweet beautiful things born by nature — raised by no one. Give them presents. You’re raising pimps. That’s what a pimp is. A pimp will act nasty to you so you have to go out and get them something. And then you bring it back and maybe he or she hugs you. And that’s why pimp is so famous. They’ve got a drink called the “Pimp-something.” You all wonder what that’s about, don’t you? Well, you’re probably going to let Jesus figure it out for you. Well, I’ve got something to tell you about Jesus. When you go to the church, look at the stained glass things of Jesus. Look at them. Is Jesus smiling? Not in one picture. So, tell your friends. Let’s try to do something. Let’s try to make Jesus smile. Let’s start parenting. Thank you, thank you.

Also, Ta-Nehisi put Cosby’s conservatism into historical context in this very good piece in the Atlantic.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • rakia

    Thanks for posting this. I’d never read the whole speech.

    I guess I’m part of the minority on this because I agree with *most* of what The Cos says here. He grew up in very modest conditions himself, and since becoming wealthy and famous, he has continually put his money and time and commitment where his mouth is. Yeah, his comments reek of elitism and have that in-the-good-ole-days quality that the over-65 crowd love to hark back on, but I think Cosby is also speaking a nasty truth.

    I live in Harlem, and I love my neighborhood. But sometimes I just want to shake it to death. I often see unsupervised ten-year olds on the street corner at 10pm, speaking vulgarities I hadn’t even heard of until I got to college. They sing the latest rap songs with all the bleeped out parts unbleeped. They often look slightly unkept. Y’all know the scene. It is wholly unacceptable, yet it’s happening in a lot of places every night.

    A quick anecdote: when I first moved into my building, a young woman was cursing her kids out. When she realized I was moving in, she asked, “Do you have children?” I nervously shook my head no. Her reply? “You’re so lucky. They get on my f*cking nerves.” This was right in front of the kids! I see this kind of parenting (or lack thereof) all the time.

    One of the things Cos said that did make me cringe was his talk about ethnic names. As someone with one of these names, I thought he was being really short-sighted. There’s something nice about not having a name everyone else has. (In my last job, there were several Jennifers, Kates, Michaels, and Johns on each floor.) But even knowing all that — and I hate to admit this — when I hear names like Shaquana or LaVauntay, I immediately conjure an image of people not unlike the kids hanging out on my street corner. Am I being classist? Am I buying into stereotypes? Perhaps. But I find it awfully hard not to from where I’m sitting.

    I think Cos had every right to say what he said.

  • Rakia: I don’t think you’re in the minority at all. I think more people agree with Cosby’s speech than disagree with it, though I have no real way of knowing for sure.

    That said, I think the problem with stereotypes is that they often sound sorta true, and they’re made plausible by biases we already hold. Cosby managed to chastise the ‘dysfunction’ of an entire segment of black America without naming anyone who was an actual person or citing one stat. He was trafficking in types, which are necessarily about dehumanization. If he were not black, we would (rightly, I think) call his statements racist. And reading it, it’s hard to deny the contempt that informs his words. He really doesn’t like ‘those people.’

    And as I said in the other post, I’m not sure what good it did, outside of letting people who already agreed with the backwardness of the people’e he’s talking about shake their heads in mutual disgust/embarrassment.

    I gotta be honest, though. I’m kind of surprised you’re among that number.

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  • Big Word

    I’ve never really had a problem with what Cosby said, it was the way he said it. IMO, somebody like him should be able to take his frustration and use it to raise the bar on discussions like these, kinda like Obama did with his race speech back in February. Also given his own history with the civil rights movement, he’s being more than a bit hypocritical.

  • quadmoniker

    My problem with this kind of speech is that it is just another time when we put the onus on poor people to have middle-class values and achievements without middle-class incomes, middle-class security, and middle-class social networks.

    The appeal of these arguments is that they address things we can pretty much all agree are problematic – the idea of fathers shirking their responsibility – and calls for things we can all agree are good in the abstract – personal responsibility and hard work. But the idea that your material destiny is up to you is a particularly middle-class idea, because those in the middle-class can see, almost immediately, the feedback from positive achievement. If you live in a world that isn’t safe enough or quiet enough or comfortable enough, a world that causes different psychological stresses every day, and a world where whether you can afford food is a real question and, even if you could, there isn’t a grocery store in your neighborhood or a bank from which to withdraw money, you’re probably much less likely to have agency in your life.

    Whether the circumstances anyone describes ring true or not is besides the point. This speech, and others, moralizes poverty and wealth in a way that we’ve been doing in America for a long time. It appeals to the speaker and the audience because they’re the ones who have done well, and it reaffirms their idea that it has something to do with them rather than with luck or circumstance. I don’t know what it’s like to be black, but I do know something about poverty, and I can’t imagine how those problems are compounded when one is black in a racist country.

    It’s fine to advocate responsibility, and there probably is a fine line between being “victimized” and acknowledging the structural challenges facing you. But the social pressure and support that is required, that both Obama and Cosby talk about, relies on a real sense of community. In most cities in the U.S., we spent most of the middle part of the last century tearing down those communities – putting in expressways and demolishing single-family homes in favor of high-rises that we didn’t pay to maintain, putting poor people in boxes and not allowing them to congregate in parks and on sidewalks because, we think, that’s where crime occurs. We systematically denied people home ownership. We based our educational funding system on property taxes, so that poorest people got the poorest schools and the fewest resources. These are the things that tear communities apart and break down social networks and supports. There is a culture of poverty, but it’s not like anyone that Cosby is talking about can control their culture anymore than anyone else can. Just because some are superhuman and can achieve despite all odds doesn’t mean we can throw down the gauntlet and expect everyone too. Until we address the real physical and institutional problems that are especially in cities, there won’t be any reason for anyone to just spontaneously start “parenting.”

    It’s fine for Cosby to put his money where his mouth is, but this kind of rhetoric is just the kind of thing racist white people love. They already believe that African-Americans in inner-cities are morally bankrupt, so what are they going to do about their own racism and the racism in their communities when they just hear others reaffirming it?

  • QM: wow. very, very well said.

  • K.

    very well said indeed.

  • quadmoniker-

    When you say:

    “Until we address the real physical and institutional problems that are especially in cities, there won’t be any reason for anyone to just spontaneously start ‘parenting.'”

    What do you mean by address? Do you mean redress? Is it policy that needs to change? Whose responsibility is that?

    It’s important to criticize Cosby/Obama for the fallacies in their speeches, but I think sometimes so much time is spent doing that, while little time is spent offering an alternative to what he’s saying.

    I think the appeal to most people who agree with Cosby’s rhetoric is that he’s actually saying something (wrongheaded as it may be) and doing something — his tour with Poussaint and that judge, Arrington — about a problem that many avoid even thinking about.

  • shanio:

    I gotta calling shenanigans on this. An alternative to his condemnation of the epidemic of pound cake theft? The out-of-control rates of backward-clothes wearing? Um, what?

    This is all hyperbole, and takes the reality of life in poverty and turns it into some baroque comic opera of moral turpitude.
    He gets attention because he’s an icon and he says things in a way that resonates with many people’s inner bigots. (Oh, i’m sorry. i meant ‘frustrations and concerns’). Nothing he says here is demonstrably true. He’s not critiquing poverty, he’s critiquing a caricature of it.

    People *are* suggesting an alternative to what he’s saying — there are all kinds of people who are trying to make a dent in the achievement gap, to provide better services to poor communities, etc. People aren’t tsk-tsking at poor test scores; they’re trying to find novel ways to engage a population with limited resources to help bring those scores up. They are pushing for higher wages and reconsidering drug laws and better services. And I’m pretty sure those people aren’t motivated by the contempt and embarrassment that seems to animate Bill “God is tired of you” Cosby and his chorus of supporters.

    When you say this is ‘a problem that many avoid even thinking about,’ are you referring to poverty? Because I gotta tell you: no one thinks about poverty more than poor people. (And frankly, it’s a stretch to say that this speech and those like it constitute ‘thinking about poverty.’ )

  • Racism is real, it’s institutional, it’s both covert and overt, and it has been ever since Africans got here. I think that of the work to be done to give lower-income black people a fighting chance – REAL opportunity – acknowledging and fighting racism is imperative. That still doesn’t absolve us of our own duty to do the best we can with what we have, and I think the contempt you hear in Cosby’s diatribe comes from the knowledge that some of us really are not doing the best we can with what we have. A lot of what was in Cosby’s speech (and Obama’s) is generalizing, but it generalizes problems that we know are out there. There’s no nice way to say it. It’s difficult to watch and unfortunate to have to acknowledge, but it has to be addressed.

    That said, speeches won’t get it done. We in Philly are still waiting to see the results of the 10,000 men who gathered and listened to speeches and promised last year to be more visible and active in the community. Matter of fact, we’re still waiting for the results of the Million Man and Woman marches from the 90’s.

    Also, I denounce the very concept of “middle-class values.” Values know no economic boundaries. Ask the rich kids who secretly give birth to children and dispose of them in automobile trunks. Ask the poor people who marry at the courthouse and stay together for years. There is nothing unfair about expecting people of any economic or social class to value family, education, and self-sufficiency. You don’t need a certain income to have these values.

    The problem arises when we fail to recognize how certain obstacles make achievement based upon those values more difficult for people with less resources. However, we can still have this recognition without going to an extreme and expecting people to fail, accepting specious excuses for why some people can’t or won’t achieve, or staying silent about problems in the community. There’s often an economic difference between the people who speak about these problems and the people who are living them, but that is often because the former are the ones with access to a mic or a publisher. My piss-poor grandmother said the same things about values – did her economic status give her the right to comment on her own community?

    Should he have said it differently? Most def. That speech was insulting. But some folks are so busy worrying about how he said it or how much money he makes that they don’t want to admit that he did still voice valid concerns that we cannot ignore if we truly want us all to have real opportunity. I’m not worried about validating racists’ view of what’s happening in our neighborhoods – racists will always be what they are. I’m worried about getting the problems solved instead of silently watching and shaking my head or listening to inspiring speeches or marching or putting words through mock funerals.

    I want people to have the values so that (due to the efforts of the able) as the fight against racist barriers makes the achievements come within reach, there will be hands willing and able to grab them. No lost scholarships due to unplanned pregnancies, and no GED drop-outs due to illegal income opportunities. Addressing the racism first in order to give people a reason to work on the values won’t work – our kids don’t have time for that. These efforts cannot be mutually exclusive – too many of our kids don’t even know how to talk to prospective employers to make themselves attractive competitors in the marketplace, and getting rid of racism won’t change that.

    We can and should choose to “do right,” and it often takes little to no economic cost to use that agency. One doesn’t have to be superhuman to teach values.

  • quadmoniker

    The first thing, I think, is the actual physical world that people live in. HUD and many cities are addressing the problems of aging public housing projects, but it’s happening fairly slowly and it’s still really top-down. Cities need to make a real commitment to requiring affordable housing spread through different neighborhoods. New public housing projects should be mixed-income and have more common spaces, where possible. There needs to be a real commitment, an actual monetary one, to paying for upkeep and cleaning on the street level. And before they build them, they need to go to the people who live there and ask them what their biggest problems, concerns, and desires are.

    The next problems are, obviously, harder. Public housing throughout NYC is heavily policed, and many have surveillance rooms where police monitor the grounds and the hallways via cameras. It’s tricky. Obviously, everyone wants neighborhoods to be safe. But knowing police are watching you all the time? It doesn’t sound like my idea of home. What’s the deterrent to jail if the place you live in already feels like a prison?

    I won’t even say what I think should happen with schools, because it’ll never happen. But if you want social pressure to help inspire achievement and conformity to laws, you have to foster a sense of community. I think that’s society’s responsibility. Obviously, not everyone would have equal desires and values and abilities no matter what we do for their homes. But I think we’d all be better off if we asked better questions about what absolutely everyone should have equal access to, rather than castigating those who do not take equal advantage.

    Katherine Boo, my favorite writer, wrote a really great piece for the New Yorker called Swamp Nurse in late 2005, I think. Louisiana started a program for teenage mothers. A nurse would go into their homes on a regular basis and teach them how to parent. That’s the kind of level of involvement I think it’s going to take. If you want to preach about parenting, you have to first really recognize that some people might not even know what you mean by parenting.

  • glory:

    “Also, I denounce the very concept of “middle-class values.” Values know no economic boundaries. Ask the rich kids who secretly give birth to children and dispose of them in automobile trunks. Ask the poor people who marry at the courthouse and stay together for years. There is nothing unfair about expecting people of any economic or social class to value family, education, and self-sufficiency. You don’t need a certain income to have these values.”

    Maybe we should clarify: we’re not talking about ‘morality’ when we say ‘middle class values’, but attitudes shaped by economic circumstances. Most sociologists don’t associate the middle class with an income but moreso with certain attitudes they have toward the world and things they possess. Those markers generally include a college education, property ownership, a bank account and access to credit.

    The values that QM was referring to are the ones that are concomitant to living a life where those things are a given. The realistic expectation of college education, for example, informs the way people live their lives. That’s why people in poorer places — black, Latino, white or otherwise — have kids younger; if you’ve never considered college than you have no reason to put off starting a family, because having a child at 19 doesn’t dramatically change the outlook you’ve had for your life. The reason women at Spelman aren’t dropping out en masse with pregnancies is because they expect to travel and work and maybe go to grad school before or if they choose to settle down.

    The same goes for bank accounts. In poor neighborhoods there are usually check cashing spots in lieu of banks — and the people who live in those places where incomes hover around the poverty line don’t actually make enough to have anything at the end of the month to save. The way a kid who has two professional parents at home relates to money is going to be fundamentally different; she’s more likely to have learned how to save, or at least, to not harbor the deep suspicions about banks that so many poor people have.

    The New York Times reported on a study last year that said that people who are more educated tend to live longer, but the researchers were stumped as to why. One of them posited this theory:

    Dr. Lleras-Muney and others point to one plausible explanation — as a group, less educated people are less able to plan for the future and to delay gratification. If true, that may, for example, explain the differences in smoking rates between more educated people and less educated ones.

    Smokers are at least twice as likely to die at any age as people who never smoked, says Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania. And not only are poorly educated people more likely to smoke but, he says, “everybody knows that smoking can be deadly,” and that includes the poorly educated.

    But education, Dr. Smith at RAND finds, may somehow teach people to delay gratification. For example, he reported that in one large federal study of middle-aged people, those with less education were less able to think ahead.

    “Most of adherence is unpleasant,” Dr. Smith says. “You have to be willing to do something that is not pleasant now and you have to stay with it and think about the future.”

    So many normal parts of middle class life affirm those values; the process of getting good grades in high school to bolster your standing when applying to college means you’re learning how to put off the immediate gratification for some kind of long-term benefit.

    A lot of people of don’t get how this constitutes an entire value system informed not just by the social expectations of your family and peers but also by the realistic access you have to resources that reify those values. And if you’re middle class, you’re more likely to have those values reinforced explicitly and subtly.

    I would also argue that poor people do in fact ‘value family, education, and self-sufficiency’; they’re just viewing those things through a dramatically different prism than you do.

  • Demby- Of course. The people who avoid thinking about poverty are not poor people, they’re people like me, cozy in their own little bubbles, but with a vague sense of discomfort at the way things are going for poor people who look like them. They/we avoid thinking about it because it doesn’t feel good.

    There’s embarrassment there, yes. But there’s also guilt, because some middle-class blacks have come out of poverty recently — we’re not all legacies of the black bourgeoisie — and the guilt comes from the fact that hey, we made it, but our cousins didn’t. That guilt gets tempered with self-righteousness and pride because no one really wants to feel guilty, and when Cosby voices his opinion, shifts the blame onto the poor, it lifts the guilt and turns it into something uglier. At least, that’s what I sense.

    But I could explain why I think he’s been so well-received all day. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s doing things wrong.

    quadmoniker- Thanks. The solutions you mention aren’t easy; the clearly require time and money and effort on the behalf of people who are in positions of power. Cosby’s suggestions require very little of the middle-class, which, I think, is another reason why they go over so well.

    I guess the mindset that needs to change is a very American one – bootstraps, stick-to-it-iveness, etc, don’t answer all the questions.

  • quadmoniker

    G.D., thanks for clarifying, that’s exactly what I meant.

    Shanio, yeah you’re right, the bootstraps narrative is a particularly popular one in America, and everyone likes to think they’ve lived it, even those who were born relatively well off. And you’re right that it appeals to the middle class, in part, because it assuages their guilt.

  • thanks,g.d.

  • ok, back after lunch and some other things… again, thanks for the clarification (i still hate the wording). got questions based on this: “A lot of people of don’t get how this constitutes an entire value system informed not just by the social expectations of your family and peers but also by the realistic access you have to resources that reify those values. And if you’re middle class, you’re more likely to have those values reinforced explicitly and subtly.”

    Could the expectations of your family that you mention be the key? You know – in circumstances where there is no other outward reinforcement of these values and expectations – could the expectations of family be enough to encourage reaching for these markers valued by the middle class? Also, how wide do you imagine the difference is between poor people’s prism and my own?

  • glory: hate the wording of what?

    I’m sure there’s a huge benefit from having your fam hammer those expectations into your head. But, again, those expectations need to be supplemented by some kind of tangible resources. I’m thinking of my own adolescence here; i didn’t have hot water in my house (which was infested with rodents, btw) or an e-mail account until i went away to college. And i had it better than a LOT of people i came up with in a lot of ways in that my mom did a pretty decent job of hiding the instability that lurked on the edges of our lives.

    Stability is a luxury a lot of people don’t have. My mom worked in a school in West Philly where this kid was straight-A student who was taking care of his three younger siblings and his mother, who was a paraplegic. He was 12. So as inspiring as his personal story may have been, his life was clearly a house of cards.

    Also, I want to redact the ‘poor people’s prism vs. yours’ bit. I should have said ‘poor people’s prisms vs. a middle class one.’

  • I hate the wording of “middle class values,” though I understand the clarification you made.

    I hear you on the stability thing. I’ve witnessed it and can see how instability and a lack of resources can make the most well intentioned kid make a decision that errs from the path of opportunity. Certainly though, that student you mentioned as an example, valued the things I think of when I think of values – and if that kid ‘strayed,’ that doesn’t mean his values have gone away. If given the reasonable chance to excel, I’m guessing such a kid would take that chance because of what the kid must have been taught to value. What is disheartening is to know that there are some kids who possess the same potential who squander it because they do not value what they can get with it (or they haven’t been encouraged to believe that they actually can get anything of value with their talent, which I find to be an unnecessary failing of the kid’s upbringing or environment – both the upbringing and the environment can be changed.) I believe that we are not encouraging these kids enough and that sends the message that it’s too risky to dream and reach.

    I understood your meaning re: the prism thing. It’s not that I took it personally, it’s actually that I wanted to understand how you think the poor kid sees family, education, and self-sufficiency differently.

  • glory: sorry for the delay in responding. What I mean is that I think people view those things — family, education, and self-sufficiency — through ways that make sense in their world. If no one in your neighborhood is the product of the idealized heteronormative family with 2.5 kids, would you suddenly stop seeing your family as less valid? Nah. You’d see your family of cousins and aunts and uncles who probably live under one roof as just another family. That goes for families with fathers who aren’t in the house but still contribute financially to their kids, unmarried parents who live together under the roof of the woman’s mother, or any other possible permutation of domestic life. That’s just family, and part of the reason poor people have so much instability in their live is because, say, a Section 8 recipient may put up her lawbreaking son or nephew because he’d be homeless otherwise. After all, ol’ dude is family, you know?

    And so on.

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