Debunking the Debunking of Cosby on Blacks
Michelle Singletary, Personal Finance Columnist for the Washington Post, takes on Bill Cosby in her column in yesterday’s edition.
Debunking Cosby on Blacks (Nov. 13, F01)
Was comedian Bill Cosby right when he criticized poor blacks for not appreciating and thus capitalizing on the path people such as civil rights icon Rosa Parks paved?
It’s fitting, as many reflect on Parks’s life and her decision not to move to the back of the bus, that we also examine the current economic state of black America. So this month for the Color of Money Book Club, I’m recommending “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?” by Michael Eric Dyson (Basic Civitas Books, $23).
During a ceremony last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Cosby contrasted the achievements of civil rights activists such as Parks with the current generation of “lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people” who he said have not been holding up their end of the deal.
Cosby said they are squandering what Parks and others fought for. They are “fighting hard to be ignorant,” he said.
Poor blacks are bad parents because they waste what little money they have buying high-priced, brand-name shoes, Cosby chided.
“All this child knows is gimme, gimme, gimme,” Cosby said, according to a transcript of the speech. “They are buying things for the kid. $500 sneakers. For what?”
Cosby was lauded by white conservatives and some blacks for being brave enough to speak out. But like the price of sneakers that Cosby got wrong, he was incorrect about much of what he said. And Dyson proves as much in his well-researched book.
So we’re about to be presented with data indicating that poor blacks do not, in fact, buy luxury items that they can not afford and otherwise engage in financially irresponsible behavior?
Dyson, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, deftly demolishes the stereotypes Cosby let loose.
Why is a professor of religious studies doing research in economics and/or sociology? Isn’t that rather outside his expertise?
Let’s take Cosby’s assertion that lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people are pathological consumers throwing their money away on overpriced consumer goods. Dyson counters with research by anthropologist Elizabeth Chin. In her book “Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture,” Chin concluded that black youths are not brand-crazed consumer addicts any more so than other youths. In fact, the children Chin studied more often than not made good purchasing decisions.
But what exactly does that mean? For one thing, race isn’t the important variable here; there are plenty of wealthy and middle class blacks who can afford frivilous purchases. And wealthy people of any race can afford to be more frivolous than the poor.
Regardless, Alex Tabarrok provides the actual data:
Average income of whites and other races: $53,292.
Average income of blacks: $34,485.
The survey then lists expenditures on a wide variety of goods from eggs and fish to books and televisions; to do a proper comparison we would have to correct for income and other demographic variables but some figures just jump out at you, including this:
Expenditures on footwear by whites and other races: $274
Expenditures on footwear by blacks: $440.
Back to Singletary and Dyson:
“It is interesting that Cosby expects poor parents, and youth, to be more fiscally responsible than those with far greater resources prove to be,” Dyson writes.
But what about the oft-repeated assertion that poor blacks can’t afford to be spendthrifts?
“There is a cruelty to such an observation,” according to Dyson. “Not only is the poor parent, or child, at a great disadvantage economically, but they are expected to be more judicious and responsible than their well-to-do counterparts, with far fewer resources.”
Well, no. “Judicious” and “responsible” are not static points; they are variable based on resources. It would be irresponsible for your average college professor to purchase a new Ferrari Scaglietti; it would be perfectly reasonable for a professional basketball player.
This is a race-neutral measure. As Megan McArdle observes,
Do people with fewer resources have to be more judicious than those with more? D’uh! Speaking as someone who chose a career in which she makes only a fraction of what her graduate school classmates rake in . . . well, if I wasn’t a hell of a lot more judicious and responsible than my classmates, I’d be bankrupt and homeless. It seems rather crueller to let someone continue to dig themselves into a pit, than to point out that the only way they are headed is further down.