My always-sharp wife caught a pretty outrageous statement by Penn professor Michael Eric Dyson in the New York Times Magazine this week in an interview with Deborah Solomon about his new book Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?
SOLOMON: You, yourself, as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, know that Cosby's following is hardly based on his wealth. Why do you think the black middle class has been so moved by his call for individual responsibility?
DYSON: Of course, taken in one sense, a lot of what he said we can agree with. None of us want our children to be murderers or thieves. But Cosby never acknowledges that most poor blacks don't have a choice about these things.
SOLOMON: So, then, how much do you think individual will counts for our success or failure in life?
DYSON: I don't believe in that kind of American John Wayne individualism where people pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Someone changed your diapers. And if that's the case, you ain't self-made.
Saying that poor blacks "don't have a choice" about committing crimes is an irresponsible and destructive statement -- a perfect expression, in fact, of the attitude that Cosby is trying to challenge. Dyson is right that our society is failing to provide educational and economic opportunity to poor young black men in the inner city. That needs to change. But to deny that poor blacks -- like everyone else in society -- retain moral responsibility for their choices (however limited) is to encourage the destructive culture that has become so pervasive among the black urban poor since the black middle class moved out. It's extremely awkward for blacks and whites to discuss (see: the welfare reform debate), and Cosby is to commended for trying to address it, though his efforts have surely not always been perfect. Dyson, on the other hand, appears to be trying to suppress the issue entirely.
(Caveats: There's a larger philosophical argument about the existence of free will that I'm not going to address here. Also, Dyson surely defends this argument in greater detail in his book, which hasn't been released yet.)