Black on Both Sides

Just in time for Black History Month, here are some Negroes we can be proud of. Comedian Bill Cosby is every white person's favorite and safe comedian -- the middle-aged Will Smith without all the

Feb 14, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Just in time for Black History Month, here are some Negroes we can be proud of.

Comedian Bill Cosby is every white person's favorite and safe comedian — the middle-aged Will Smith without all the nervous laughter. Smokey Robinson is Motown's brown Dick Clark — seemingly ageless and somehow relevant.

The two threw a one-two economic punch that's got some among us reeling and dazed and others madly strategizing.

In one corner, Vice Mayor Alicia Reece is waving smelling salts under Mayor Charlie Luken's nose: "Wake up, Mister Charlie! Wake up! They ain't comin'! They been listening to the wrong people!"

Point is, they're listening. And here comes the damage control.

But before we hear a word from black sponsors á la white bankrolls, a little housekeeping.

First, I proudly return Cosby's Negro Membership Card and gladly renew Robinson's. Cosby's had been yanked after it seemed he'd forgotten how much weight his status and name recognition yielded during countless and shameless appearances at college graduations in exchange for fat checks and honorary degrees.

Robinson's membership had lapsed after general inactivity and his emergence as an oldies act mimicking his former self.

Meantime, our mayor has returned to his part-time job of promoting concerts, a job I thought he'd quit after his love fest with James Brown at the (Dis)Taste of Cincinnati.

Speaking of Sold Out Brother No. 1, apparently Cosby and Robinson aren't as strapped for cash as Brown was and therefore have no need to help Cincinnatians get our minds off our problems. Good for them.

Definite battle lines have now been drawn. Robinson and Cosby, with their Everyman nostalgia, are people whites know and even like. Cosby's upcoming Cincinnati show was close to a sell-out, and tickets weren't cheap.

By not coming, the two entertainers have heralded a message many of us knew all along: Cincinnati's racial tension is neither "their problem" nor a "black thang." It's now a serious economic issue, which makes it an equal opportunity problem.

Why? Because the city's pocketbooks have been threatened with deflation. What's that? The sound of white people pricking up their ears.

Two things intrigue me. For one, backers of an all-out economic boycott like the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati probably weren't taken seriously before.

Before Cosby and Robinson pulled out, the effort to get the attention of city officials — and the world — by soliciting support of a boycott was like a game of hoops between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Seton girls team. The city had a lot of flash, power and hand jive.

Then the underdogs drafted Kobe Bryant and Allan Iverson. Now we got us a game, folks.

And Reece is begging, "Put me in, coach! I'm ready to play!"

Ads touting our supposed racial progress will appear across the country specifically targeting black audiences. So, in-between stories in Ebony about how Destiny's Child spends their down time rollerblading, going to church and caring for sick babies, look for ads espousing how Cincinnati hired a black female city manager and how we've set deadlines to do what the Justice Department told us to do about our police department.

They're comin' for us. Suddenly, people who could've cared less about how we live will spend money to infiltrate the staples of our culture to convince outsiders we're living more harmoniously.

Be careful, and do not be fooled. Outreach in the name of strategically placed advertisements is little more than damage control.

It's all about the Benjamins, baby.

In whitespeak, money matters, and there's lots to be lost if big-name Negroes start whispering among themselves. The truth is that money is power, and black folks have more of both than even we realize.

All told, yes, innocents will get hurt. That's the fallout when — after a whirling, out-of-control fit of power, justice and money — people are held accountable for their injustices by the ones who've been oppressed and ignored for so long.

It bears repeating: Innocents will be hurt. Several small downtown and Over-the-Rhine businesses are already limping, and some will expire.

But we cannot laugh this away, and we cannot sing this away. We must live it away. And we've got to live through it one day, one concert and one ad at a time.

See you on the other side. Now go home.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.