While I respect the intellectualism and intent of Michael Eric Dyson, and treasure our friendship, his attacks on Bill Cosby are too harsh.
Cosby has paid his dues. He has earned the privilege of having and expressing an opinion about the plight of Africans in America. In his groundbreaking sitcom, The Cosby Show, unlike many of today's unapologetic, commercial purveyors of filth and degradation, Cosby uplifted Black college and family life in ways that permanently changed perception and reality.
There is a great distance — philosophically and politically — between Bill Cosby on the one hand, and those like Clarence Thomas and many artists who use their power and access to media to hurt the cause of civil rights and social justice.
On a personal note, I recall Bill's alignment with, not distancing from, the civil rights movement. On one occasion, Cosby did a concert to raise funds for the movement, and many who normally would come to see him did not come. So Bill later did events without announcement of their fund-raising purpose, would pack the house, and then support the movement directly. He is the largest source of support for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and is well-known for his and his wife, Camille's, support for Spellman College, Morehouse College and our other historically Black colleges and universities.
There is no real debate in the African American community concerning personal responsibility. It is well settled that while institutional inequality and injustice are real, they never excuse doing less than one's best to overcome the effects. Certainly, African Americans and the poor face structural inequality. Cosby argues that while it may not be the fault of Blacks for being in poverty, it is our burden to challenge and break out of it.
We marvel at our athletes enjoying success despite growing up with inferior resources: rocky baseball diamonds, hoops without nets, dilapidated public tennis courts and public golf courses. But athletes make choices to overcome — not succumb — to such obstacles, to not let anyone hinder them from achieving their goals.
It is fair to say when rules are public, goals are clear and the playing field is even, all people — regardless of ethnicity — do exceedingly well. But if one group is far behind for any reason in the race of life, that group must run faster. We, as African Americans have much ground to make up. As a community and a people, we must make good choices.
If the playing field is uneven, those who succeed and benefit most from the struggle of others are not the ones who make it even. It is always the victims of the uneven playing field who must rise up and make it even — that's the legacy of our civil rights struggle: not blaming the victim, but securing social responsibility.
Cosby, like many artists, feels that African Americans cannot tolerate the hieroglyphics of destitution and music that commercially recycles degradation as "truth" — none of which can be reconciled with dignity.
Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Cosby reflected on the price paid by our lawyers, martyrs and common citizens at great risk, facing violence and lynch mobs on a daily basis.
Thinking of the price they paid for our momentous victories, he commented that many of the beneficiaries of these struggles are now nonchalant and dismissive about their sacrifice. Today, many have lost the will to fight back against fewer odds, with unsound priorities, engaging in commercialized self-degradation and undermining self-determination. Therefore, such people suffer from a dignity deficit disorder.
So, we should respect Cosby's cumulative record of service and appreciate the context of his pain and challenge. We cannot justifiably make Bill Cosby the "poster child" for cultural insensitivity.
Keep our eyes on the prize and keep hope alive!
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.