Taken by surprise, the audience responded as it would to a typical [Bill Cosby] performance, laughing and applauding. Theodore Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who followed Cosby on the program, officially kicked off what has become a yearlong debate when he jettisoned his prepared remarks and instead cautioned against demonizing the black poor by ignoring a bigger picture of racism and neglect. In the immediate media aftermath, many other black notables shouted or mumbled their assent, from conservative columnists such as Thomas Sowell to then- NAACP CEO Kweisi Mfume. And just one said no, in a voice as loud and unequivocal as Cosby's: [Michael Eric Dyson]. Far from despairing or keeping silent about black issues that feel to many of us like existential riddles, Dyson savors them. He eats them for lunch. The 46-year-old University of Pennsylvania humanities professor is known for his sharp social and political analyses, his gift of metaphor and quick wit, all of which he deployed as Cosby's opponent in this new front in an old culture war.
By the end of the book--well, halfway through--it's hard not to conclude that Cosby, for all his righteous anger, was way off the mark. Time and again Dyson cites studies, statistics and surveys that, contrary to Cosby's dire assessments, reveal poor and working- class blacks to be patriotic, socially conservative, hard-working, optimistic and much less likely to blame the white man or "the system" for their troubles than most people believe. He is careful to laud Cosby for his own role in black history and for his racial philanthropy--he's given millions over the years to historically black colleges and universities--but insists that philanthropy doesn't buy him the right or confer on him the expertise to make sweeping statements about black people as if they're fact and/or gospel. "I admire Cosby--his giving money is peerless," Dyson says. "We talked for an hour and a half, and I said I embrace and love him. But there's a non-transferability of genius on this point. I told him I had to oppose him, but it was ideological, not personal."
The worst thing, Dyson says, is that Cosby understands that, or did once. The book quotes from interviews dating back to the '60s in which Cosby acknowledged, if not downright emphasized, ongoing social and historical factors that have contributed to black problems. Not an uncommon view, but remarkable for a man who built a successful career and public image on minimizing race in general, and blackness in particular. "Cosby knows educational inequity and racism," Dyson says. "He's too smart not to know. He has culpable ignorance." So might Cosby simply be a crusader who got mugged by the criminally slow pace of change and flipped orthodoxies in middle age, a black version of David Horowitz? Dyson says maybe, but there's more to it than that. "He could be deeply conservative, but most of us are conservative," he says. "But by making his stuff look exceptional"--by deliberately setting himself apart from the rest of us--"he's not acknowledging that. Why?"