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JOAN VENNOCHI

Cosby's comments cut deep

BILL COSBY did it again. He said what many white Americans think but are afraid to say out loud for fear of sounding racist.

Cosby once again blasted segments of the black American community, telling a gathering presided over by the Rev. Jesse Jackson that black children who don't know how to read or write are running around "going nowhere." Warned Cosby: "Let me tell you something, your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other n----- as they're walking up and down the street."

This candor follows earlier remarks Cosby made in May at a commemoration of the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. At that time, Cosby derided some blacks for poor grammar, saying: "I can't even talk the way these people talk, `Why you ain't,' " `Where you is.' "

From a white perspective, it is easy to cheer on Cosby then smugly write off his words as a long-overdue wake-up call for black America. It's their problem, not ours, right?

Their problem it may be, but the big issue -- declining values and standards -- isn't limited to one ethnicity or neighborhood.

Today the American minivan is hip-hopping along the way to soccer games and baseball practice. The beat is a better pickup than caffeine, but listen to the lyrics and the message is a real downer. Not to sound like Tipper Gore, but after a while you realize you are singing about shaking your "tailfeather," "milking the cow," and "double-Ds," with the n-word thrown around as generously as the Beatles used "yeah, yeah, yeah." White boys can't jump, but many of them want to be Kobe Bryant or, short of that, Ja Rule. They want the money, the cars, and the bootylicious babes, and they see no connection between those goals and reading "A Separate Peace." (Incidentally, it is difficult to explain why a certain ethnic slur is unacceptable when they hear their rap idols singing it on their favorite CDs.)

This is the American melting pot, circa 2004. Music and sports, the great energizers of youth, unite as they reflect shared values. The culture, black and white, worships the high-flying world of professional athletes and entertainers, which is ethnically more diverse than corporate and academic America because it doesn't require higher degrees of learning. The racial divide that still exists in America means that black kids who don't become rich rap stars or make it to the NBA are still at a disadvantage compared with white kids who don't make it there either.

But today's youth, black and white, equate success with something quite different than learning how to read, write, reason, and debate. Universally, success is measured one way: in dollars. It doesn't seem to matter how you get them, just get them.

In his recent remarks, Cosby said young black people are failing to honor the sacrifices made by those who struggled and died during the civil rights movement. He is correct, but again, the same premise applies to young white Americans who are forgetting all those great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers who came to Ellis Island as teenagers and wanted one thing for their children: an education. In learning, those immigrants saw the path to economic security, which is something quite different from the mindless acquisition of material wealth. They passed that value on to their children, who in turn passed it on to their baby boomer children, who somehow are failing to pass it onto their own offspring.

Their children all want the magic bullet, the "American Idol" shortcut to fame and material success. They know dialogue and plot lines from "Law and Order," but law school? What a drag. If they can't be professional jocks, they want to be sportscasters. Sportswriting might be OK, but only if spellcheck is part of the job offer.

The economic consequences of that kind of thinking are graver for blacks than whites. To a certain extent, Cosby is saying accept the racial divide for what it is and do not use it as an excuse for failure. As an overall message, telling young people to take personal responsibility is fine as far as it goes. But as local minister Don Muhammad says, "He is pointing out an error, not the direction or way to resolve it."

What is the solution? Cosby doesn't say, but it's something we should all contemplate. There aren't enough jobs in America for kids, black or white, who can't read, write, or speak proper English. And wait until they find out the hard truth: The jobs available to the unskilled and uneducated don't come with mansions and Mercedes, they come with hamburgers and fries. The hip-hop generation is not all black. White America just likes to believe it is. Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com. 

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