WILLIAM RASPBERRY: It's still about the character issue

WASHINGTON – A quote from Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1958 book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” says something that badly needs saying as we celebrate his birthday nearly four decades later:

“In short,” he wrote, “we must work on two fronts. On the one hand, we must continue to resist the system … which is the basic cause of our lagging standards; on the other hand, we must work constructively to improve the standards themselves. There must be a rhythmic alternation between attacking the causes and healing the effects.”

The quote comes to mind because of the public reaction to what Bill Cosby has been saying: That low-income black parents are spending too much on Nikes and too little on “Hooked on Phonics,” and that they are failing to instill proper discipline in their “knucklehead” children who, by their speech and behavior, are dooming themselves to economic failure.

The words are harsh, as Cosby meant them to be. But they are not wrong. Adjusting for the fact that one is a comic and the other was an unusually eloquent preacher, Cosby was saying what King said a generation ago when he demanded that we be judged not by what we are, but by how we behave – “by the content of our character.”

King, obviously hoping white people were listening, was saying: If we do what we have to do to limit our behavior-spawned problems, then you must learn to look beyond our skin and see our behavior. Cosby, whose target is low-income black America, is saying: White people can't save you if you won't try to save yourselves.

King wouldn't have argued that black people had overcome the problems associated with what we used to call the “culture of poverty,” only that white people must learn to see us as individuals. Cosby wouldn't argue that white America has laid its racism to rest, only that today what we do is a more powerful determinant of our success than what is done to us.

Neither man, I am saying, would doubt the need for “a rhythmic alternation between attacking the causes and healing the effects.”

Cosby's analysis is controversial, not because black Americans doubt that it is correct, but because white people seem too eager to hear its conscience-sparing message. Perhaps we remember how all of King's preachings and teachings have, particularly in the minds of white conservatives who never supported the movement he led, come down to an emphasis on “the content of our character.”

But if these conservative latter-day supporters of King have forgotten the context in which he spoke, we are in danger of overlooking the context of Cosby's one-man crusade.

That context has two principal features. The first is that we live in an age where such personal characteristics as initiative, persistence, education, attitude and (yes) character are the means by which the black middle class sustains itself, and grows. The second is that a minority of black Americans – the uneducated, poorly spoken, disaffected underclass – appears to be locked in a cycle of poverty from which they see no escape.

Cosby, in language that veers close to exasperation, believes he is offering an escape plan.

My sole problem with the Cosby approach is that he seems to believe today's dispirited and disaffected youngsters see what he saw – what the children of the black middle class mostly see: that if they behave in certain ways, speak in certain ways, life will open up for them the way it did for us. He's asking them to accept Eliza Doolittle as a role model.

The youngsters don't buy it – not because they wish to fail, but because they don't see evidence that changing their behavior will have much of a payoff beyond making the rest of us less uncomfortable with them.

The young people I'm talking about – and in many cases, their parents as well – tend to see the middle-class life as unavailable to them. They are, to that extent, victims of a series of social disasters, no less powerful because some of us managed to escape them. We need to pay attention to what caused (and still compounds) their situation.

But we need to help them understand that life can be made to open up, at least for the children. Calling them knuckleheads or accusing their parents of dereliction won't do it. Patience and teaching and example just might.

What is needed is “a rhythmic alternation between attacking the causes and healing the effects.”

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com. He was reared in Okolona and writes for The Washington Post Writes Group. Raspberry received The Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary.