WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Our question for today: Do white people matter?
It's Bill Cosby who inspires me to ask. In May, you'll recall, he made headlines for criticizing the "lower economic people" in African America for what he saw as their ungrammatical locution and dysfunctional behavior. On July 1, he was at it again, saying in an appearance at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition's annual conference in Chicago that black youths are the "dirty laundry" many people would prefer he not criticize.
"Let me tell you something," he said. "Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other the N-word as they're walking up and down the street. They think they're hip. They can't read. They can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere."
Predictably, that set off another heated debate, even though Mr. Cosby is not saying anything black people have not said themselves, albeit privately. What makes Mr. Cosby's comments extraordinary is not what he is saying, but where. Meaning, forums to which white people are privy. Because the danger of black self-criticism is always that bigots will use it to bolster their bigotry.
Mr. Cosby addressed that concern in May during an interview with Eugene Kane, columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The comedian, who turns 67 tomorrow, said he's simply at an age where he no longer cares what white people think of black people's dirty linen.
"I'm a tired man," he said.
Make no mistake: It's much easier for a black multimillionaire to dismiss white people's opinions than it is for a black man or woman living paycheck to paycheck. But even granting that not-insignificant caveat, I must confess that I find Mr. Cosby's attitude refreshing, mainly because it points toward a freedom blacks have never enjoyed before. Meaning the freedom to stop pretending perfection.
The calculus of the freedom struggle once required that, demanded that, we constantly prove our worth. Conversely, some people - black and white - began to romanticize black folk, idealize us, as if the very fact of long suffering made us better, nobler. Such thinking was considered a sign of enlightenment. Actually, it was just a quieter bigotry that suggested we had to be better in order to be equal. It never allowed us to be simply human with all the frailties that implies.
Blacks have never gotten beyond that mindset. Sometimes we act as if conceding the slightest blemish would validate the whole canon of white racism. Never mind that nobody is perfect and every culture contains dysfunction. We know that a white boy on crystal meth will be called troubled, while a black one on crack will be called proof that 37 million people are irredeemable.
Maybe, however, it's time we reconsidered the lengths we go to to change the minds of those who subscribe to that kind of "thinking." Maybe we ought to question whether we can ever win the approval of such people, and frankly, whether we'd want it if we could. Do white people - bigoted ones, at least - matter?
Especially if the price of their approval is to stand silent while the future burns?
You have only to visit the schoolhouse or jailhouse to see the flames. And one need not be blind to racism's role in the equation to know that we bear some accountability, too, that elements of black pop culture are toxic, that some of us have undervalued fatherhood, disinvested in education, rationalized dysfunction.
It should make us all sick to our souls to watch our children die - spiritually, intellectually, physically - knowing that black people can do, and indeed have done, so much better than this.
So when Mr. Cosby calls himself a tired man, I read it less as a statement of fatigue than one of frustration. And who can blame him?
Hell, I'm a tired man, too.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.