Michael Eric Dyson
Is Bill Cosby Right?

Talking Points

Bill Cosby vs. Michael Eric Dyson

Michael Eric Dyson takes Bill Cosby on head-to-head with each issue that he brings up in his now infamous NAACP speech from May 17, 2004. Here are some highlights:

Cosby: "Just forget telling your child to join the Peace Corps. It's right around the corner. (laughter) It's standing on the corner. It can't speak English. It doesn't want to learn English. I can't even talk the way these people talk."

Dyson: "Cosby's poisonous view of young folks who speak a language he can barely parse [Ebonics] simmers with hostility and resentment." And "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Cosby's lauded '70s television cartoon series, won greater acceptance for a new cast of black identities and vernacular language styles. Cosby has made money and gained further influence from using forms of black English he now violently detests."

Cosby: "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 (laughter and clapping)."

Dyson: "Baggy clothes express identity among black youth, and not just beginning with hip-hop culture. Moreover, young black entrepreneurs like Sean 'P. Diddy' Colms and Russell Simmons have made millions from their clothing lines."

Cosby: "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."

Dyson: "Names like Shaniqua and Taliqua are meaningful cultural expressions of self-determination.I think that it does have something to do with African roots of black identity, and perhaps with Cosby's ignorance and discomfort with those roots.Cosby's ornery, ill-informed diatribe against black-naming is a snapshot of his assault on poor black identity." And "Given the vicious way blacks have been targeted for incarceration, Cosby's comments about poor blacks who end up in jail are dangerously na´ve and empirically wrong."

Cosby: "The city and all these people have to pick up the tab on them [poor African Americans] because they don't want to accept that they have to study to get an education."

Dyson: "If the rigidly segregated education system continues to fail poor blacks by failing to prepare their children for the world of work, then admonitions to 'stay in school' may ring hollow.In suburban neighborhoods, there are $60-million schools with state-of-the-art technology, while inner city schools desperately fight for funding for their students."

Cosby: "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? (clapping) Where were you when he was twelve? (clapping) Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don't know he had a pistol? (clapping)"

Dyson: "And then there are the problems of the working poor: folk who rise up early every day and often work more than forty hours a week, and yet barely, if ever, make it above the poverty level. We must acknowledge the plight of both poor black (single) mothers and poor black fathers, and the lack of social support they confront. Hence, it is incredibly difficult to spend as much time with children as poor black parents might like, especially since they will be demonized if they fail to provide for their children's basic needs."

Cosby: "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.and these people are not parenting. They're buying things for the kid. $500 sneakers, for what? And they won't spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics. (clapping)"

Dyson: "And yet, some of the engaged critique he [Cosby] seeks to make of black folk—of their materialism, their consumptive desires, their personal choices their moral aspirations, their social conscience—is broadcast with much more imagination and insight in certain quarters of hip-hop culture. (Think of Kanye West's track, "All Falls Down," which displays a self-critical approach to the link between consumption and the effort to ward off racial degradation.)"

Cosby: "I don't know who these people [poor African Americans] are."

Dyson: "The poor folk Cosby has hit the hardest are most vulnerable to the decisions of the powerful groups of which he has demanded the least: public policy makers, the business and social elite and political activists. Poor black folk cannot gain asylum from the potentially negative effects of Cosby's words on public policy makers and politicians who decide to put into play measures that support Cosby's narrow beliefs."

Cosby: "They're [poor African Americans] 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."

Dyson: "Cosby completely ignores shifts in the economy that give value to some work while other work, in the words of William Julius Wilson 'disappears.' In our high-tech, high-skilled economy where low-skilled work is being scaled back, phased out, exported, or severely under-compensated, all the right behavior in the world won't create better jobs with more pay."

Cosby: "God is tired of you."

Dyson: "No matter how you judge Cosby's comments, you can't help but believe that a great deal of his consternation with the poor stems from his desire to remove the shame he feels in their presence and about their activity in the world. There's nothing like a formerly poor black multimillionaire bashing poor blacks to lend credence to the ancient assaults they've endured from the dominant culture."

Cosby: "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.where did these people get the idea that they're moving ahead on this."

Dyson: "Cosby's overemphasis on personal responsibility, not structural features, wrongly locates the source of poor black suffering—and by implication its remedy—in the lives of the poor."

Listen to audio excerpts from Bill Cosby's speech on Monday, May 17, 2004, at the NAACP's gala to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Back to Top

Also by Michael Eric Dyson

Is Bill Cosby Right?
New York Times Interview
MSNBC: Excerpt & Video
NPR Radio: Interview
Newsweek Online Review
AOL BlackVoices Interview
Read Submitted Opinions
April 4, 1968
Debating Race
Come Hell or High Water
The Michael Eric Dyson Reader
Open Mike
Know What I Mean?
Mercy, Mercy Me
Why I Love Black Women
Holler If You Hear Me