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Dyson, Merida React to 'Come On, People'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, on the front lines of reporting for NPR and other western media in Iraq. It's a job most often handled by Iraqi journalists, and scores have died.

But first, back to Cosby and Poussaint's book, "Come On, People." As you just heard from Dr. Alvin Poussaint, the new book challenges African-Americans to rise above what they see as a culture of pathology.

Another perspective now from Michael Eric Dyson and Kevin Merida. Dyson is a professor at Georgetown University, teaching theology and African-American studies. Among his many books is one called "Is Bill Cosby Right or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?" Also here, Kevin Merida, the editor of a book called "Being a Black Man: At the Corner of Progress and Peril." It's based on last year's Washington Post series by the same name. He's an associate editor at The Post.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for coming.

Professor MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Georgetown University): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. KEVIN MERIDA (Associate Editor, Washington Post): Thank you.

MARTIN: Professor Dyson, you've been very tough on Mr. Cosby's arguments in the past, calling them elitist. But can you look at the numbers that he cites like the homicide rate, for example, among African-Americans and deny that at least some of what he and Dr. Poussaint are saying is true?

Prof. DYSON: Yeah, well, first of all, we got to acknowledge that Mr. Cosby has made a significant shift away from some of the personal ad homonym assaults upon poor people - number one. Number two, he's also emphasized much - in much greater detail, obviously with the assistance of Dr. Poussaint, the structural matters that we speak about as being very significant, along with issues of personal responsibility.

Having said that, there's a bit of alarmism involved in any of these statistics that are taken out of context. The black male homicide rate actually has declined over the last couple of decades - especially now with the exceptions of some cities - Washington and Philadelphia - where we see a spike in what's going on there.

The teen pregnancy rate is down. The educational aspirations of young black men and women are on par with and sometime even exceed white students. And then finally the myth of the acting white is based upon a 1986 study of a single school here in Washington, D.C. It's mostly anecdote. It's not empirical verification of black students' attitudes.

So when you break all that stuff down, still I would argue with the actual empirical data upon which rests Dr. Poussaint's and Mr. Cosby's descriptions. But yes, having said all that, I understand the need to be concerned about these issues and to address them. And I think that the disingenuous character of Mr. Cosby's and Dr. Poussaint's argument would be to say, look, we changed because we knew our approach was kind of - it was kind of janky, it was wrong, it was problematic, it was funky, and we don't want to dishonor the very people that we claim to want to help.


Prof. DYSON: And I think that's all I've been interested in. Let's just be respective of those people and see that we can engage them in a critical fashion without being dismissive or condescending.

MARTIN: Okay. Do you think you had an effect on the conversation?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Kevin, let's bring you in. The Post did a long series on the state of black men. Your survey has indicated that many African-American men are happy with their lives. They feel sort of optimistic and positive about their future. It's interesting that Bill Cosby attacked the series as being happy talk, as being overly — you know, Mike Dyson talked about being alarmist - attacked yours as being sort of overly optimistic. So how do you read what he's saying?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I thought it's pretty bizarre. I don't know, in my history of 30 years in journalism of anybody has accused me of being too soft on black men. You know, I mean, I think if you look at the nightly news every night, you know, you see plenty of images of black men in criminal poses.

I think that what our series did was we tried to show the range and breadth of black men, and to show people what they don't normally see, to show black men in all of their complexities and to - so that you could see them, you can hear their voices, their challenges. There are a lot of statistics out there. You know, there have been - the number of black graduates have quadrupled since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. You know, there are 78,000 - I think is one figure that we had in our series - 78,000 black men as engineers, which is like a, you know, fast growing profession for black men, a third of an increase over a 10-year period.

MARTIN: But...

Mr. MERIDA: So there are a lot of things that are happening that, you know, they're competing statistics, and I - the statistics that he talks about are alarming, but there are other statistics as well.

MARTIN: The men in the series that you interviewed, did - they felt - a lot of them felt personally optimistic but alarmed at sort of the broader trends in society. But isn't that true of a lot of people in America, that they feel their own lives are moving in the right direction, but they're concerned about sort of the broader direction that the country is taking?

Mr. MERIDA: Yeah. I think that one of the myths, I think, Michel, is that black men don't see them - are kind of monolithic about these problems and we sweep them under the rag. If you go into any black barbershop, you'll see the greatest debates on Earth.

And black men are upset with the failed behavior of other black men. They hold themselves responsible in many cases. And so I think there's a great concern about some of the problems that he talks - but again, I think black men look at - they're part of the world too, and they see the world changing.

I mean, we had a young man in Jonathan McMaster who's every bit a part of a black man who's represented - he had been to 30 countries. He played in the school orchestra. He was on the football team. He studied in London over the summer. So these are young black men who have had the kind of social experiences that previous generations didn't. And they're very optimistic and confident about their place in the world.

MARTIN: Mike Dyson, I wanted to ask you that - again, you know, about your critique of Bill Cosby and Dr. Poussaint's sort of - particularly Bill Cosby's sort of previous utterances. These - after he made his sort of famous, or as some would call infamous, sort of remarks criticizing black America, he then started having a series of dialogues all around the country. Many of the people who come to this - and these are - I've been to some, they are sold out, they are packed, people wait in line...

Prof. DYSON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...for hours to go...

Prof. DYSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...and they stay there for hours - I mean three hours, they're exhausting.

Prof. DYSON: Right.

MARTIN: Are the very people who he would seem to be talking about. So wouldn't that suggest that perhaps he has tapped into a conversation that people want to have?

Prof. DYSON: Or it's a contradiction of what his contention is. His contention is these people are disinterested, uncaring about the sophisticated analysis of their particular problems, or the clear, lucid, moral explanation about their decline. If they're selling your joint out, if they're coming in droves, that suggest that maybe you're wrong, and maybe talking to them is better than talking at them, engaging them.

Although, let's be honest, in many of those call-out sessions were no serious conversation and dialogue. They were Mr. Cosby's bully pulpit to get the home team advantage, and I don't - I'm not mad at that. That's what you do when you're trying to, you know, gin up the kind of intellectual loyalty to your particular ideology or viewpoint. So I ain't mad at that.

But the problem is that again, their very presence suggests that there's a deep hunger that Mr. Merida spoke about among black people. They are self- critical. I go to these barbershops; I got to get my hair cut. And black people go, hey, Dyson, let me tell you what. When you was talking on that program, man - yeah, professor, what do you think about this? But don't you think - there's raucous dialogue. I would have loved to have seen barbershops replicated at Cosby's call-outs rather than Cosby's bully pulpit, indicating that he understood the answer.

In the barbershop, there's democracy. You're a professor; you're a engineer; you're a garbage man, have at it. You got something to say, get down with it. I don't see that democracy even in Cosby's conversation. But there is a deep hunger there and the people who are coming are hungry for conversation.

MARTIN: Is your concern about the way that he talks about these issues that it is airing dirty laundry?

Prof. DYSON: No.

MARTIN: Or that it removes a sense of urgency around political action by putting so much emphasis on the individual?

Prof. DYSON: Yeah, more of the latter than the former. You know, if I was against dirty laundry, I wouldn't have wrote a book on Bill Cosby. If I was against dirty laundry I wouldn't say let's call everybody's laundry out. But isn't it interesting that there's only one class of laundry being aired out, right? For obvious reasons, there's a response to say to Mr. Cosby, you've had difficulties in your own family. You're a rich guy. Could you speak on that? No, we can't talk about that. That is not going to happen. I ain't mad at him because that's his personal thing.

All of us - I'm not saying just him - all of us who are morally flawed, in pulpits, as professors, as engineers, we don't talk about that dirty laundry. We talk about the dirty laundry of the poor who can't defend themselves. Cosby can sue you. The average black guy can't.

So the reality is that when we speak about these issues, I'm saying it's not about airing dirty laundry, it's about getting to the matter that makes a difference. And Bill Cosby is a famous black guy who has a bully pulpit the size of the world; it's global. He puts his colossal foot on the vulnerable necks of poor people, and as a result of that, we don't have a balanced conversation.

I saw a much more balance on "Meet the Press" on Sunday with Dr. Poussaint there saying these are structure matters, these are economic matters, these are social matters along with personal responsibility. Can we get that balance? That's what I'm worried about.

MARTIN: Kevin Merida?

Mr. MERIDA: I just want to say that, you know, we have a long history in black communities of open debate. I mean, you know, Kelly Miller was a prominent educator in the early 20th century, openly criticized the Harlem Renaissance. Richard Wright, one of our famous authors, criticized Zora Neale Hurston for, you know, using minstrel figures, as he put it, in her fiction. Stokely Carmichael was in favor of black power and criticized the Civil Rights Movement. So this is not really new.

MARTIN: E. Franklin Frazier criticized some of the consumption habits of what he called the black bourgeoisie.

Mr. MERIDA: Yeah. And I think there's a kind of a myth about, you know, some fear that African-Americans have about airing dirty laundry. I think that that's not borne out by history.

MARTIN: But I think that the argument that he would make is that perhaps we put so much emphasis on political action and sort of organizing that perhaps the internal work isn't being done or isn't being given as much attention as it should be.

Dr. DYSON: Man, can you go to any black church on Sunday morning, the internal work is mostly about the spirit. It's about your soul. It's about the status of prayer, your prayer life. It's about, what are you doing with your children? What are you doing with your family? This is why I'm saying the colossal ignorance of the ordinary quotidian daily emphasis, rituals and practices of black people are obscured.

Mr. Merida has already pointed to this Jonathan McMaster. There are countless examples of black people who contradict the very portrait that's being offered out of the rhetoric of Mr. Cosby. And dare we say this: he's a famous guy. He's a rich guy. He's a beloved father figure, but social criticism ain't his shtick. And he ain't really that informed about the complex, competing and converging at some points portraits of black America that put forth. He's right to speak about what he understands, but he needs to be a bit more self critical in regulating that conversation.

MARTIN: Kevin, we have a minute left. Since you are in charge of facts - I mean, you spent a year investigating the facts in black Americans as you could discern them. Do you see the trend line moving in a positive direction or in a negative direction overall?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think we have, you know, we're going in some negative directions, and we're going into some positive direction. And I think that the balance is the thing that we should strive for in this conversation. And it's not as dire, I think, as Mr. Cosby says. I think he leaves out some things, and yet I think he's right to focus on the problems of fatherless households, of the crime and the hopelessness. But there is always deeper context to that. I mean, we have to provide kids with more opportunity. Opportunity is really the key to success.

MARTIN: Okay. The Washington Post, Kevin Merida, edited the book "Being a Black Man." Georgetown University's Michael Eric Dyson is the author of many books, among them "Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?". They were both kind enough to join me here in our Washington studios.

Thank you both so much.

Dr. DYSON: Always good to be here.

Mr. MERIDA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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