Bill Cosby And Cultural Decline

I highly recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates' profile of Bill Cosby in the latest Atlantic, but one passage seemed worth plucking out and arguing with. Here's Coates:

Cosby’s, and much of black America’s, conservative analysis flattens history and smooths over the wrinkles that have characterized black America since its inception ... Indeed, a century ago, the black brain trust was pushing the same rhetoric that Cosby is pushing today. It was concerned that slavery had essentially destroyed the black family and was obsessed with seemingly the same issues—crime, wanton sexuality, and general moral turpitude—that Cosby claims are recent developments ...

In particular, Cosby’s argument—that much of what haunts young black men originates in post-segregation black culture—doesn’t square with history. As early as the 1930s, sociologists were concerned that black men were falling behind black women. In his classic study, The Negro Family in the United States, published in 1939, E. Franklin Frazier argued that urbanization was undermining the ability of men to provide for their families. In 1965—at the height of the civil-rights movement—Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s milestone report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” picked up the same theme.

At times, Cosby seems willfully blind to the parallels between his arguments and those made in the presumably glorious past. Consider his problems with rap. How could an avowed jazz fanatic be oblivious to the similar plaints once sparked by the music of his youth? “The tired longshoreman, the porter, the housemaid and the poor elevator boy in search of recreation, seeking in jazz the tonic for weary nerves and muscles,” wrote the lay historian J. A. Rogers, “are only too apt to find the bootlegger, the gambler and the demi-monde who have come there for victims and to escape the eyes of the police.”

Beyond the apocryphal notion that black culture was once a fount of virtue, there’s still the charge that culture is indeed the problem. But to reach that conclusion, you’d have to stand on some rickety legs. The hip-hop argument, again, is particularly creaky. Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard social scientist, has highlighted that an increase in hip-hop’s popularity during the early 1990s corresponded with a declining amount of time spent reading among black kids. But gangsta rap can be correlated with other phenomena, too—many of them positive. During the 1990s, as gangsta rap exploded, teen pregnancy and the murder rate among black men declined. Should we give the blue ribbon in citizenship to Dr. Dre?



In one sense, these are all good points: The supposed golden ages of the past had problems of their own, which are connected to the problems we have today; the impact of pop cultural trends on sociological trends can be vastly overstated; gangsta rap is as much a manifestation of pre-existing pathologies as it is a cause of new ones; etc. But there's also a sense in which Coates' argument here, with its emphasis on the perpetual recurrence of cultural declinism among reformers and intellectuals, runs the risk of eliding the reality of actual-existing cultural decline. The fact that legends of a golden age can obscure a far more complicated reality doesn't change the fact that cultural indicators do vary from era to era; true, no era is Edenic, but some periods simply are more virtuous than others. The fact that prior generations of intellectuals fretted, Cosby-style, about African-American crime rates, family structure, and so on doesn't change the fact that those problems have grown much, much worse in the interim. And the fact that some moralistic crusades are foolish and misguided doesn't mean that all of them are. The anti-jazz crusaders confused the music with the venues where it played, but that doesn't mean that they were wrong to inveigh against alcoholism and gambling, and the fact that fifty years later jazz has become easy-listening music for the haute-bourgeoisie doesn't mean the same thing will happen - or should happen, more importantly - to this kind of thing.