BILL COSBY has been making news lately, not for his comedic genius but for his commentaries on the crude language that is becoming commonplace among the young in the black community and for parental failure to make education a top priority for their children.
While many praise his courage and candor, others resent him for washing the community's laundry in public. Such a public display, they argue, will serve only as a weapon to be wielded by others against blacks.
Critics also rationalize that the younger generation's language and attitudes are merely a reflection of our culture. I disagree. Illiteracy, the denigration of women as "bitches" and "hos" and the use of the N-word as a term of endearment do not reflect our culture. They reflect our conditioning at the hands of others. They cater to and, perversely, fatten the coffers of those who historically have resorted to negative stereotyping to hold us back and down.
For years, blacks were treated as being intellectually inferior to whites. In the world of sports, we could be running backs, but not quarterbacks; slugging outfielders but not clever pitchers; horse grooms but not jockeys; caddies but not golfers.
In the military, Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. endured years of silence for scaling the walls of West Point. The Tuskeegee Airmen flew in segregated squadrons to defend freedoms that were denied to them in America.
In Hollywood, until recently, black actors were generally allowed to appear in movies or on television only as clowns, criminals or crack addicts. Strong, handsome males were seen as too threatening, while beautiful females were relegated to secondary roles. Those who held the power to display the beauty in our community chose to pick weeds instead of flowers.
The culture of my generation, however, was not to yield to the bigotry of others, but to contest and overcome it - on the battlefields, in the classrooms, in the courtrooms and in the boardrooms. We did so through education and effort, through self-love and self-discipline, and through the sheer determination to prevail.
As a child growing up in a segregated housing project under the safe embrace of a single mother, I was taught that poverty was never to be used as an excuse for failure. My mother insisted that self-respect, sexual abstinence, proper English and a good education were indispensable to achieving success.
There is more than a generational divide at issue today. During the long struggle for civil rights, countless heroes risked life and limb to erase the cruel vestiges of slavery and racism. Thurgood Marshall fought against all odds to establish the principle in Brown vs. Board of Education that quality of education must be available to all if all are ever to be equal.
While the promise of Brown remains elusive, we should not through action or neglect be responsible for pushing it beyond our grasp. It is disheartening to watch our young people forfeit educational opportunities and indulge in slurs that were once the epithets hurled by slave masters and segregationists.
The corruption of language or manners should not be accepted as merely a fad or some form of social protest. Manifesting and celebrating behavior that conforms to the stereotypes fashioned by those who have repressed our highest aspirations can result only in taking us back to an unhappy future.
All of which makes the debate that Bill Cosby has stirred so important. He has by example and deed earned the right to issue a public call for us to return to the sterner virtues that helped make America's promise real for so many. Over the years he has always placed his mind and his money where his heart is - in the pursuit of power through education.
Janet Langhart Cohen is the author of From Rage to Reason.
Columnist Thomas L. Friedman is away writing a book.
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