MAXWELL:  Hard work and hard questions

6/19/2005 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.

While criticizing recent U.S. immigration policy last month, Mexican President Vicente Fox said: “There’s no doubt that the Mexican men and women _ full of dignity, willpower and a capacity for work _ are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States.”

Predictably, the usual suspects, most notably Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, accused Fox of racism, and they demanded a public apology. I do not know if Fox was driven by racism, but I do know that his observation _ even his “even” _ was the truth.

The fact is that few blacks, even the most uneducated, are willing to take the minimum-wage-without-benefits jobs, such as farm work, home landscaping, janitorial service and backroom restaurant work, that Mexicans literally die for. Remember, many of them risk their lives crossing Arizona and New Mexico deserts to get into our nation for lowly jobs.

Last month, I was in New York and heard about Dinos Kanzanis, founder and operator of Atlas Employment Agency in Chelsea. My hotel was only a few blocks away, so I visited the agency just to see who came and went. Kanzanis specializes in finding workers exclusively for Greek restaurants and diners. He seeks only one kind of worker: Mexican.

Why? “They are very good quality workers,” he told the New York Times. “If these illegals leave New York City, New York will die. I know.”

To a large extent, by accepting low-wage jobs, Hispanics, the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority, have surpassed blacks in terms of economic viability, as shown by the findings of a recently released study by the Pew Hispanic Foundation.

The report finds that Hispanics, who average fewer years of education, who may not speak English and who routinely take inferior jobs, outperform blacks. While Hispanic households earn $33,000 annually, blacks earn $29,600. Black unemployment is 10.8 percent. Hispanic unemployment is 4.7 percent. Hispanics are accumulating less debt than blacks, and they have pulled even with blacks in homeownership.

Hispanics are leaving blacks behind for simple reasons: They are more willing to take jobs that even blacks will not take; they control the desire for bling and expensive entertainment; they more readily pool their resources and save; they just plain work hard.

As Hispanics have done, can blacks finally face reality and tap into their legitimate strengths? Can we accept the truth? If we do not, we will remain a marginalized minority in the world’s richest nation. And given the structural changes in the U.S. economy, we will fall further and further behind everyone else.

If blacks are to survive as a viable ethnic group in the United States, they must confront their hard-wired aversion to honest introspection.

Such a change will be tough for blacks _ a historically disenfranchised group _ because while acknowledging the substantive ways that racism has severely restricted their aspirations over the generations, they must embrace the hardships and the benefits of individual responsibility and self-reliance.

From all I can tell, however, too many blacks, even some influential intellectuals who should know better, refuse to heed the voices of wisdom, voices from without and from within, voices advising us to look inside ourselves for solutions to our problems.

Why are we rejecting such advice? Why are we in denial?

I suspect that to heed this good advice, we must abandon old assumptions and beliefs that have made us feel comfortable for so long. If we listen to the voices of wisdom, we will be forced to stop blaming others. In short, to embrace individual responsibility is to risk being dead wrong.

One unimpeachable voice of wisdom is that of comedian Bill Cosby. Last year, in several cities, Cosby preached the importance of getting a solid education and adopting positive values that open doors to opportunity.

He lamented the plight of youngsters he refers to as “knuckleheads,” those who do not apply themselves in school. He advised them to behave in ways that aid upward mobility. He ripped into “lower-economic people” for “not holding up their end” long after the civil rights movement and legislation provided many opportunities for African-Americans to succeed in larger society.

In Baltimore, Cosby said of lower-economic parents: “These people are not parenting. They are buying things for their kids _ $500 sneakers for what? And won’t spend $200 on Hooked on Phonics. They’re standing on the corner, and they can’t speak English.”

In Richmond, Va., where his audience was mostly students, Cosby said: “Study. That’s all. It’s not tough. You’re not picking cotton. You’re not picking up the trash. You’re not washing windows. You sit down. You read. You develop your brain.”

He implored girls to stop getting pregnant in their search for love, and he encouraged boys to stop joining gangs in their quest for ghetto bona fides or familial connection.

Many blacks accused Cosby of the unforgivable sin: “airing our dirty laundry.” He soon found himself hit by ad hominem attacks, rationalizations, defensiveness and recrimination, much of it from surprising sources.

Even Washington Post columnist William Raspberry went knee-jerk. Instead of taking Cosby’s words as a sincere call to face the truth about our failure to take responsibility for ourselves, Raspberry lectured the comedian for “preaching” too much and “coaching” too little. (Cosby’s millions of dollars in donations to schools and his dozens of annual speeches have changed the lives of hundreds of black children nationwide.)

University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson would not let the likes of Raspberry outdo him. He wrote a book _ a whole book _ titled Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? Needless to say, Dyson, a well-paid public intellectual, writes some nasty stuff about Cosby and the black middle class.

During a New York Times Magazine interview, Dyson intoned: “When a comedian throws a pie in the face of a powerful person, it’s funny. When he throws a pie in the face of a homeless mother with three kids, that’s not funny.” A few lines later, he says of Cosby: “It’s his Blame-the-Poor Tour. He should pick on someone in his own class. If he had come out swinging at Condi Rice or Colin Powell, they could defend themselves. But he’s beating up on poor black people, the most vulnerable people in this nation.”

Trying to discredit Cosby, Dyson fails to see that Powell and Rice succeeded because they long ago did what Cosby now recommends for black youngsters: They studied and adopted empowering behavior.

Dyson went on to utter the following gem: “Cosby never acknowledges that most poor blacks don’t have a choice about these things.” Cosby does not acknowledge that “most poor blacks don’t have a choice about these things” because such a statement would be patronizing and untruthful.

In vindication of Cosby, Ronald F. Ferguson, lecturer in public policy at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Kennedy School of Government and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, concludes in his research that black parents must accept some of the blame for the academic achievement gap between their children and white children. Ferguson, who is black and holds a doctorate in economics from MIT, found that a mere 47 percent of college-educated black parents read to their young children each day, while 60 percent of college-educated white parents read to their children. He also determined that college-educated black families have an average of 65 books in their homes, while college-educated white families have an average of 114 books.

Instead of reacting with hostility to such findings and Cosby’s advice, blacks should be seeking ways to reverse these destructive trends.

The time has come, as Cosby has known for years, to air our dirty laundry so that we can get on with the business of saving ourselves.

Former Times columnist Bill Maxwell is scholar-in-residence at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.