One sentence from his remarks explains why Cosby ignited a political controversy: "We cannot blame white people." According to an article on the Black Commentator website, "‘Personal responsibility' is a code for what people are told to exercise when the state refuses to see to the general welfare of its non-rich citizens." Another critic wrote that Cosby "delighted many white Americans" by confirming "their own self-satisfied opinion that poor African-Americans have nothing and nobody but themselves to blame for their difficult circumstances." The University of Pennsylvania's Michael Eric Dyson wrote Is Bill Cosby Right? (2005), an entire book disputing the speech.
According to Enough, by Juan Williams, Bill Cosby is right—and every black American knows it. Cosby is right to label destructive personal behavior as the principal factor perpetuating black poverty. He's right to criticize civil rights leaders who disdain any discussion of black crime or poverty unless it concentrates on white racism. And he's right to insist that the civil rights tradition calls for blacks to take advantage of every opportunity America affords, not to perpetually nurse grievances and exert moral leverage by fixating on their own victimization.
Williams is familiar to conservatives as a political analyst for Fox News, and to liberals as a correspondent for National Public Radio. His book, like Cosby's speech itself, suggests that the politics of personal responsibility is gaining traction among blacks who don't identify themselves as conservatives. But we must still turn to blacks who do, such as John McWhorter and Shelby Steele, for the most persuasive expressions of that viewpoint.
In Winning the Race, John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues against the dominant view of the black political class that "black America's problem is white people." It is a framework, he claims, that is wholly inadequate to explain unprecedented social chaos among poor blacks during what is obviously the least racist period in American history. If A causes B, reducing A cannot increase B. If white racism explains why blacks can't adapt to a changing economy, form stable families and neighborhoods, resist the lure of narcotics, or take advantage of educational opportunities, these problems should all have been much worse before the 1950s than since. In fact, McWhorter shows that the co-existence of urban poverty and moral stability used to be the rule and became the exception only in the last half-century.
What went wrong? The Great Society did Great Damage, fostering idleness and illegitimacy, says McWhorter. The bigger problem is a subculture of alienation, embraced by the least, and the most, privileged blacks, which treats defiance as the defining quality of black authenticity. It disdains educational achievement and steady employment as "acting white," demands affirmative action policies as exemptions from universal standards of merit, and embraces popular culture that glorifies toxic attitudes—McWhorter describes rap as "the most overtly and consistently misogynistic music ever produced in human history."
How did an era of unprecedented opportunities lead to a culture so extravagantly contemptuous of them? McWhorter gives a Tocquevillian answer: freedom is frightening. The freedom to fashion the life you want carries with it the fear of having to take responsibility for how that life turns out. To relieve that fear, whites have created an enormous social-insurance state and, more recently, enveloped themselves in their own culture of complaint. Blacks, rendered doubly insecure by their history of subordination, take shelter in what McWhorter calls "therapeutic alienation." It consists of blaming whites, pretending the new opportunities are fraudulent, and responding to present obstacles as though gestures of defiance were the only real options.
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Shelby Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a recipient of the Bradley Prize, conservatives' answer to the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grants." Not surprisingly, his argument in White Guilt is explicitly political. He argues that white guilt has become the defining feature of liberalism.
Whites who obey the constant pressure to demonstrate their lack of racism harm all Americans. They harm blacks by creating a political environment that discourages self-reliance. Blacks who succeed through initiative are dismissed as mere anomalies; those, like Clarence Thomas and Steele himself, who insist on self-reliance and race-neutral policies are reviled as ingrates by liberal paternalists. Guilt-ridden whites, absorbed in moral exhibitionism, are actively indifferent to the corrosive effects of their ministrations, especially on blacks. In preferring to dissociate themselves from racism instead of actually assisting African-Americans, they resemble those abolitionists who sought to dissociate themselves from a Union with slaveholders, at the cost of eliminating the only viable agency of slaves' liberation.
Among black and white liberals alike, a longstanding objection to conservatives' emphasis on black self-help has been that it entails letting whites off the hook. Steele contends that the insistence on white responsibility, far from keeping whites on the hook, actually gratifies and empowers them. Hungrily asserting their pervasive responsibility along with their pervasive guilt, white liberals find it irresistible to dehumanize blacks, treating them as perpetual sufferers and dependents. Today's white liberals embrace a morality that rests upon the presumption of white power, according to Steele. The Age of White Guilt signifies, in the end, only a peculiar extension of the Age of White Racism. Soft despotism is different from hard, but it is despotism nonetheless. And in many of its practical effects, it is not soft at all.