Bill Cosby, described as "frighteningly inarticulate when asked to expound on critical issues of race in America", gets two stars. Now those who seek to police and prescribe the borders of race-thinking will be set to crowd his lapel with many more. At a meeting last month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of segregation, he told a mostly black audience: "People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we've got these knuckle-heads walking around ... The lower-economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for their kids - $500 sneakers, for what? And won't spend $200 for Hooked On Phonics."
Since then he has been using public platforms to hammer home essentially the same message around the country. Cosby's comments are not the issue here. What is intriguing is that his views were relatively banal and still managed to shock. He echoed sentiments I have heard, argued and contested countless times in all-black company on both sides of the Atlantic. But by uttering them in public he had taken their significance to another level. The issue became not so much the text of his speech, but the broader context in which it might be misunderstood.
Whatever deal poor African Americans are supposed have signed up to, one can only presume it wasn't one that condemned them to two-thirds of the income and three times the poverty of whites, where boys born in 2001 would have a one-in-three chance of going to prison. That said, while discrimination may limit choices it doesn't determine them entirely. "Cosby offers good advice to those willing to listen," wrote columnist James Werrell in South Carolina's Rock Hill Herald last week, speaking for many. "Unfortunately, his critical comments are likely to be waylaid by those who think racism no longer exists, that blacks are their own worst enemies and that poverty results solely from laziness and lack of the will to succeed."
When it comes to self-criticism, the strain of identity politics truly begins to show in embattled communities. "Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasised that we are denying that we ever had a worst side," said African American intellectual WEB DuBois. "In all sorts of ways, we are being hemmed in."
At one extreme lies the fear that internal criticisms can be seized upon by more powerful groups to justify their discrimination. Thus the dissident among the oppressed becomes lionised by the oppressor. Warmongers covet the "good Muslim" who supports the occupation in Iraq and conservatives crave "good blacks" who will condemn affirmative action. What legitimacy or credibility these people enjoy in their own communities is irrelevant because they are sought out not to represent but to renounce.
At the other, attempts to enforce ideological conformity within a community serve only to crush dissent and entrench the most conservative elements. Thus, when under attack, the cleric from Finsbury Park or the nationalist zealot in the Balkans can set themselves up as the spokesperson for an entire people. But while they pose as radical they are almost always reactionary. For them, identity is not a starting point from which to understand the world, but the sole prism through which the world should be viewed and understood.
These problems are by no means confined to race. Take Jews and their relationship to Israel and anti-semitism. On the one hand, there are those within the Jewish community who brand even modest criticisms of Israel as anti-semitic and any Jew who makes them as a "self-hater". On the other are those who downplay the recent rise in anti-semitism or blame it on Jews themselves. This notion, as offensive as it is wrong-headed, comes most often in the form of a threat, that those Jews who do not condemn the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, will get what they deserve by way of racial assault. And so the scope for debate is narrowed and the opportunities for progressive Jews to take on conservatives within their own community is hampered by the prevalence of anti-semitism outside it.
The job of the left, whatever their religious, ethnic or racial identity, is to help create and widen the space so that progressive dissenters in each community can challenge the dupe and the demagogue. There is nothing liberal about indulging religious fundamentalism, homophobia or sexism on the grounds that to do otherwise would offend somebody's cultural or racial sensitivities. But nor is there anything progressive about attacking an embattled community by talking on behalf of people who can speak for themselves. There should be no compromise on supporting universal human rights but there must be flexibility in how we go about achieving them. Navigating that narrow line demands a mixture of humility and solidarity.
Take Islam and women in Britain. Since sexism is omnipresent it would be foolish to assume that it has escaped Muslim communities or that in some instances the position of some Muslim women is not particularly bad. It would also be arrogant to assume that Muslim women have not noticed this already or to ignore that some of them are doing something about it. Finally, it would be negligent to forget that Muslims are the most vulnerable to racial attack in Britain, which has seen a steep increase in fascist activity on the streets and at the polls in recent years and is involved in an illegal war against a Muslim country.
Liberals outside the Muslim community have some choices. We can either condemn the entire community as sexist and impose our own priorities on them, thus leaving their communities more embattled and strengthening the conservative forces within them. Or we can talk to Muslim women's groups and feminists, of whom there are many, to see what their priorities are and to find some common ground where we can support them and them us, as we struggle against our own demons of racism and Islamophobia. Who knows, we might discover that they are more interested in healthcare and jobs than headgear and jihad?
There is no such thing as a progressive agenda that fails to challenge bigotry whenever it arises. Without solidarity with those fighting bigotry within embattled communities, there can be no progressive agenda.