Acting White

September 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


CLARENCE PAGE: In African American folklore, the sea crab ranks among the dumbest of creatures who also offers a valuable lesson. When you catch a bucket or a basketful, you never have to put a lid on because when one of the creatures tries to get out, the others will just pull it back in. Some of our fellow human beings aren’t much smarter than that. When they see you working hard to achieve your dreams, they’ll make fun of you just for trying.

With friends like those, my parents used to say, you don’t need enemies. And black people have enough enemies. That message has come back to me a lot lately, like during the Democratic National Convention, when Senate candidate Barack Obama, the keynote speaker from Illinois, talked about what people need to do to help themselves.

BARACK OBAMA: Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn. They know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television set and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.

CLARENCE PAGE: Yes, today’s hip- hop generation has basket crabs of its own, eager to put you down for somehow acting white when you try to get ahead, as if blackness means you have to fail. Obama, the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, has a more positive view of blackness. He wants the rest of us to pass that message on to our kids.

BILL COSBY: There is a time, ladies and gentlemen, when we have to turn the mirror around.

CLARENCE PAGE: So does Bill Cosby. Now 67 and deep in his anecdotage, Dr. Cosby has made a new name for himself as a sometimes politically incorrect prophet of black self-improvement.

BILL COSBY: It is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us (Applause) and it keeps… it keeps a person frozen in their seat.

CLARENCE PAGE: Cosby and wife Camille have contributed millions of their dollars to educational causes. Yet some people were offended when Cosby said some of the lower economic classes are not holding up their end of this deal. Some people thought he was blaming the victim and washing dirty black community laundry in public, as if our enemies did not already know what was going on.

ACTOR “Barbershop”: You all come on around here and learn something.

CLARENCE PAGE: Reporter: I think Cosby understands that the first step to self-improvement is self- criticism. As the movie “Barbershop” illustrated, there was nothing in Cosby’s comments that black community elders have not been telling us for generations.

ACTOR: But the problem with you all today is that you got no skill, no sense of history and then, with a straight face, got the nerve to want to be somebody.

CLARENCE PAGE: Cosby was saying the same thing back in the late ’60s when I interviewed him for my college newspaper, back when both of us had a lot more hair. It was the era of big afros and black power, black panthers, and big revolutionary rhetoric. But Cosby didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about how we young black students needed to work hard and take advantage of the hard-won opportunities that civil rights victories were opening up to us as keepers of the dream.

At the time I was disappointed. Like the rest of my generation, I was trying to find myself in the romantic ideologies of that era. Today I see his bootstrap wisdom through new eyes, the eyes of a parent. Forty years have passed since the Civil Rights Act. We now have black leaders in all walks of American life. Yet surprising academic achievement gaps persist along racial and ethnic lines, even for students in upper-income families.

In fact, prominent black professors, Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier recently observed that more black undergraduates at Harvard come from immigrant families than from families descended from American slavery. Many other selective universities could say the same. Black immigrants from Africa, the West Indies, and elsewhere seem to be too busy pursuing American opportunities to waste time worrying about whether or not they are “acting black.”

Some people badmouth successful immigrants, trying to pull them back down the way crabs do. But the immigrants’ relentless optimism offers the rest of us a valuable lesson: The dream of equal opportunity is as old as the American dream. But as Bill Cosby reminds us, our own self-defeating attitudes can take us out of the race before we even start. No joke. I’m Clarence Page.