Was Bill Cosby Right?

By Keith Boykin
May 24, 2004 11:51 AM


Black America was stunned. America's most lovable television father figure, Bill Cosby, shocked African Americans at a speech last week where he seemed to criticize poor blacks. In the presence of NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and other black leaders, Cosby reportedly said, "the lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids – $500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for 'Hooked on Phonics." The statement was shocking, bold and unexpected. But was it wrong?

Cosby's comments, first reported by Richard Leiby in the Washington Post, seemed to take aim at poor black spending habits, speaking skills and behavior. "They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English," he said. "I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is' ... And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk. ... Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. ... You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!"

Bill Cosby said that? The lovable Fat Albert creator, turned Jell-O spokesman, turned Huxtable family patriarch has created a reputation for himself as such a nice black man. Why would such a nice guy say such a "mean" thing?

Cosby also criticized some blacks who complain about police brutality when the police kill black criminals in the hood. "These are not political criminals," he said. "These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, [saying] 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"

The Post reported that Cosby's remarks were met with "astonishment, laughter and applause." When Cosby finished, Mfume, Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert and NAACP Legal Defense Fund director Theodore Shaw reportedly walked to the podium looking "stone-faced," Leiby reported.

The response was swift and critical. Swygert took the podium and told the crowd that blacks were not entirely responsible for their own plight. Days later, stunned blacks sent emails urging blacks to boycott Bill Cosby. And this morning, even NBC's "Today Show" featured a lively debate on Cosby's remarks between liberal radio host Joe Madison and conservative commentator Armstrong Williams.

Cosby's publicist explained that the comedian was specifically responding to statistics showing 50% of African American males in the inner city are dropping out of school. Cosby himself said his remarks were designed to "turn the mirror around on ourselves" and to encourage concerned blacks "to march, galvanize and raise the awareness about this epidemic to transform our helplessness, frustration and righteous indignation into a sense of shared responsibility and action."

The Washington Times newspaper challenged Cosby's statistics, citing research from the National Center for Education Statistics that the dropout rate for blacks in 2000 was just 13.1 percent, not 50 percent. The Times may be right, but I'm sure the figure is higher for black men in the inner cities.

The big problem with this controversy is that Bill Cosby is not entirely wrong. Those of us who are African American well know that many of us in our community are not pulling our fair share. Despite our need to present a positive image to the public, the truth is that not all blacks are saints.

I've seen the truth in Harlem, where nearly half of all young black men are unemployed, and many of them have taken to the streets for survival. But Cosby's analysis may have confused the sympton with the problem. Is black behavior the problem, or is it a symptom of a larger problem called racism. That's the question that we're still struggling to answer.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts put it best. "Blacks seldom publicly concede that some of the dysfunction suffered by the black underclass is self-inflicted for fear of giving aid and comfort to bigotry. So when analyzing racial progress or the lack thereof, black folk tend to emphasize racism."

"Whites, on the other hand, are often loath to concede that racism remains the great ball and chain of black life for fear the admission will besmirch their benign self-image or be used to make them feel guilty. So they tend to emphasize dysfunction instead."

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Racism is still a problem in America, even though some whites want to deny it. But personal responsibility is still a problem for blacks, even though many blacks don't want to admit it, at least not publicly.

That's the dirtly little secret of black America. We talk about personal responsibility all the time when we're by ourselves. We talk about it at the NAACP conventions, in our churches, in our communities. We joke about it in comedy shows and in our self depictions in movies and television. (Anybody seen "Soul Plane" yet?) And we complain about it in our communities, where we're tired of gang violence, drug abuse and poor customer service. We talk about it everywhere, except in front of white people.

We are understandably afraid of airing our dirty laundry, so we try in vain to put on our best face for the white man, hoping he won't see or will feel too guilty to point out the obvious "white elephant" in the room.

We are not alone in this behavior. Many minority communities take extra strides to assimilate into the majority culture. But we need to understand that minorities are not the only ones in this boat. White kids are using drugs, dropping out of schools and using foul language too. There are more whites on welfare than blacks. And poor white communities are plagued by many of the same problems that afflict poor black communities.

All that means is that all of us bear some responsibility to make change. It's not just the poor and the black. It's the rich and the white as well. What makes America strong is our unity through our diversity. So Bill Cosby was right, even if his comments don't apply strictly to blacks, and even if he spoke the truth at an inconvenient time and place.