SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — As a precursor to Wittenberg University's Martin Luther King Jr. Day Commemorative Convocation, a panel discussion titled "Poverty vs. Privilege in the Black Community" was held on Jan. 11, in Bayley Auditorium in the Barbara Deer Kuss Science Center.
The panel discussion targeted the recent controversy between actor/comedian Bill Cosby and Michael Eric Dyson, Wittenberg’s 2007 Wittenberg Series Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote speaker.
The panel was facilitated by Forest Wortham, director of multicultural student programs and the WAGE Womyn’s Center, and included Carmiele Wilkerson, associate professor of English and Africana Studies director; John Young, assistant dean of judicial affairs and instructor of political science; and Miguel Martinez-Saenz, assistant professor of philosophy. A large audience of students, faculty and Springfield community members helped establish an open dialogue, which continued throughout the discussion.
The ongoing debate between Dyson and Cosby garnered national attention following Cosby’s speech at a 50th anniversary celebration of Brown v. Board of Education. During his speech, Cosby called upon African Americans to take responsibility for themselves by seeking employment and educational opportunities and ending their dependence on governmental assistance.
Dyson’s rebuttal, addressed in his book titled Is Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, counters Cosby’s arguments while exploring his concept of “afristocracy,” which Dyson says is a quality possessed by some members of the black community who are higher in the social hierarchy. Dyson takes more of an empathetic stance, believing that Cosby should ease up on the less fortunate because many of them lack the tools and resources needed to improve their current status.
In order to give context for the discussion, Wortham informed the audience of three types of poverty that exist in today’s society. Important questions such as “when is the right time to take social responsibility?” and “is poverty an individual or a societal problem?” were delivered to the panel in order to elicit varying opinions on the subject.
“Both Cosby and Dyson make good points,” Wilkerson said. “Cosby is right but wrong in his delivery, and Dyson is wrong but right for correcting Cosby.”
The issues discussed sparked audience interest in connecting the social problem of poverty with personal responsibility.
“You can’t help everybody,” he said. “But if everybody helped somebody, the world would be a hell of a better place.”
By: Rachel Morgan and Erica Strauss