Cos for action

The occasion was an NAACP dinner to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation, but Bill Cosby was in no mood to celebrate. Instead, when the famed entertainer rose to offer remarks to the Washington gathering in May 2004, he delivered a withering condemnation of the values and behavior that he said were holding back lower-income black neighborhoods.

A half-century after the landmark court ruling, Cosby lamented the lack of interest among too many blacks in the schoolhouse doors opened up by the decision. “What the hell good is Brown vs. the Board of Education if nobody wants it?” he said. He railed against a lack of parenting that would have been unthinkable when he was growing up in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood. He bemoaned astronomical high school dropout rates, absent fathers, women having children by multiple men, and prisons overflowing with black inmates who were not railroaded by the system but rather made horrible decisions.

He offered a parable about a boxer who was badly losing a bout. “It’s not what he’s doing to you,” his manager told him. “It’s what you’re not doing.” This was Bill Cosby’s way of telling black Americans to get up off the mat, to stop pointing fingers at the racial discrimination that remains a force, and focus instead on the degree to which they can change their own lives and help shape those of their children.

The 71-year-old western Massachusetts resident insists that his critique is nothing new. During our conversation, he mentions a profile in Ebony magazine more than 30 years ago in which he raised some of these same issues — and he has his agent’s office in Los Angeles fax a copy of the story to underline the point. They may be long-held views, but Cosby has never before staked out anything like the public profile he has assumed on these issues over the last four years. Since his 2004 speech, Cosby has hit the road, speaking to packed community meetings in cities across the country, imploring blacks to seize control of their destiny. Last year he laid out his message by co-authoring a book with his longtime friend, Harvard child psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, called Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors.

Cosby and Poussaint’s campaign has unleashed a passionate debate within the black community. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert praised them for “hammering home some brutal truths about self-destructive behavior with the African-American community” and called their work “nothing less than an effort to save the soul of black America.” Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates asked, in a Times op-ed, “Why the huge flap over Bill Cosby’s insistence that black teenagers do their homework, stay in school, master standard English, and stop having babies?”

“It’s important to talk about life chances — about the constricted set of opportunities that poverty brings,” wrote Gates. “But to treat black people as if they’re helpless rag dolls swept up and buffeted by vast social trends — as if they had no say in the shaping of their lives — is a supreme act of condescension.”

But Michael Eric Dyson, a black studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, calls Cosby’s crusade a cruel “blame-the-poor tour” that ignores such factors as the disappearance of blue-collar jobs from cities. In 2005, Dyson, who has emerged as Cosby’s chief critic, went so far as to write a book titled Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?

Cosby does nothing to conceal his contempt for Dyson and other blacks whose careers, he says, are built on maintaining the image of African-Americans as dispossessed victims of an oppressive power structure. He calls such critics “intellectual panhandlers.”

He and Poussaint challenge the claim by Dyson and others that big changes in the economy have shut the door of opportunity to low-income blacks. They extol the pathway to decent jobs provided by community colleges, and insist that education is a ticket out of poverty that is within reach.

When it comes to a belief in education as the key to black self-improvement, Cosby has put his money where his mouth is, in ways both large and small. He and his wife, Camille, have donated millions to black colleges, including a $20 million gift to Spelman College in Atlanta. Four years ago, Cosby, who lives in the Franklin County town of Shelburne, pledged to pay the college costs for four teenage boys graduating from high school in nearby Springfield, where Cosby has become a regular presence, speaking to community meetings and school gatherings.

In August, I spoke with Cosby and Poussaint. I sat with Poussaint at his office at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, with Cosby, an animated presence even via speakerphone, joining in from New York. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

COMMONWEALTH: Your book on the need for black Americans to seize responsibility for their plight came out last year, but it really puts on paper issues that you, Mr. Cosby, raised in a speech four years ago that received lots of attention. What led you to speak out at the time you did, and then mount what has almost been a campaign to force the discussion of these issues?

COSBY: I’m looking at Philadelphia, 300-and-some murders of young men. I’m looking at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with all those murders. I’m looking at Chicago, Detroit — the dropouts there. People are talking about, “You don’t put out our dirty laundry.” But nobody’s wanting to clean it. We’re not paying attention to the murders. We’re not paying attention to the 55 percent dropout rate. We’re not paying attention to teenage pregnancy, the numbers of our households run by single parents. We’re not paying attention to our black men going into prison and black men not standing to be the fathers of their children. Then we get the intellectual panhandlers who, I feel, realize that if these people really do get up and begin to fight the fight to win, they’ll be out of work.

CW: You talk about that in your book. You said blaming the problems of poor urban blacks on racism or “the system” keeps certain black people in the limelight — while keeping the black poor wallowing in victimhood.

COSBY: Sure.

CW: So you think there are leaders who are really just interested in maintaining their position? They’re kind of the lead grievance representatives?

COSBY: Let’s not call them leaders.

CW: At the root of a lot of your critique is really a withering appraisal of the state of the black family. Put most bluntly, at one point in the book you and Dr. Poussaint write, “In many neighborhoods parenting is not going on.” What do you mean by that?

POUSSAINT: Well, I think what we mean is that a lot of good parents and a lot of black parents help their children to succeed and have done the right thing. But it’s also very obvious that there are a lot of parents who are not doing the right thing, who are not nurturing and loving their children and giving them what they need to a significant degree. Some of these families can be two-parent, but an overwhelming number of them are single-parent families. About 70 percent of black babies are born to single mothers. Many of them don’t know a lot about parenting. Many of them are young, they’re teenagers, and they don’t know what to do by their children. So one of the chapters in this book is devoted to parenting because you can’t assume that people know what to do. We know there are a lot of things that they’re not doing. They’re not tending to them, not understanding how to support education, not knowing what they need to do to help their minds and brains develop. And then, frankly, there are some parents who are abusing the children psychologically, physically. A lot of sexual abuse goes on in the black community. There’s a lot of use of corporal punishment, hitting and spanking, and a lot of that does turn into physical child abuse. We know that damages the chances of these young people. You get a lot of angry youth because of this, and you also get a lot of youth who find difficulty learning, being obedient, fitting into social situations, and fitting into schools because a lot of parents aren’t supporting the school situation. So we see parenting as key. We have to get out of the denial and stop pretending that all the parents are doing the right thing.

CW: Or, I guess, pretending that these woes are all inflicted from outside.

POUSSAINT: Yeah, blaming some of the failures of their home or parenting failures on systemic racism. “Well, we can’t be good parents until you get rid of all the systemic racism.” Or, “This can’t happen. We can’t stop killing each other until you get rid of the systemic racism. We can’t stop going to jail or avoiding jail until you get…” So there’s a lot of excuse-making, like Bill says, from people not understanding what they can do to strengthen the community and, in fact, put us in a better position, a position of strength, because we have strong people or strong children or educated children to fight the remnants of systemic racism in society.

CW: In your book and in the talks you both have given, you’ve offered some pretty startling statistics on the state of the black family, say, 50 years ago, that are really quite different from today. There was a time when two-parent families predominated and there was the respect for adults that you decry as being absent today. One thing that’s striking is that the decline of those things has come during the period after so many legal victories of the civil rights movement. There seems almost an irony there.

POUSSAINT: There were still high rates of unemployment [50 years ago] and all the other things that don’t support marriage. [But] then you had a real change in value orientation that had to do also with the women’s movement and a change in values in the black community. In the past, when a young man got a young woman pregnant, he was supposed to marry her and help raise the children. A lot of that has disappeared. A lot of women now feel more free to say, “No, I don’t want to marry that guy anyway.” It’s easier to do that if the men are not accomplishing a lot. And for many of them who are ex-inmates, or who are unemployed, to get married is just another burden. We are not building those kinds of relationships between men and women that would help support families and then, of course, help support the children. In some of these communities, in some of the housing projects, sometimes you have close to 95 percent of [households] that are single-parent families who are headed by women.

COSBY: One of the things I think you have to look at is the denial by the noisemakers and the panhandlers. [They say] there are no examples that anybody can follow on the way to success. For instance, there are some principals of public schools to whom I have said, “Look, why is it that your school in this particular city is the third-worst high school in the city and two blocks down the street happens to be this, quote/unquote, charter school that has scored the highest points in the statewide examination and 100 percent of their kids are accepted to college?” That principal will say, “You can’t copy the same thing.” That’s not true. He’ll say that the teachers’ union is strong and that you have to put up with bad teachers. But what he’s not saying is the amount of work that he or she would be willing to go through in order to make it work. In other words, it’s not what they’re doing to you. It’s what you’re not doing.

Our foremothers and forefathers marched down the middle of the street into the sea, in silence, to make a point. We were known to galvanize to make our point. So why is it that we can’t begin to get together? This is the one time, out of many I guess, that we have to go door to door to door to door to make parents — who are depressed and don’t believe that things can get better and feel powerless, etc. — understand. “We need you. You got to come out.” We’ve got to demonstrate, and we’ve got to keep it up. Things have to be turned around.

CW: Part of what has happened over the last several decades, you write, is a real decline in the sort of values needed to improve lives, to attain the sort of middle-class life that we associate with the American Dream. You talk about your own father, Mr. Cosby, not being particularly well-educated, but he had enough of a sense about education being a positive thing that he made sure you did your geometry.

POUSSAINT: I think a lot of people don’t pay enough attention to education and have forgotten that that’s what got us out of poverty in the first place. This has diminished among parents in a lot of communities — holding up education, pushing education, supporting it in various ways. We also have schools that are not so good. We’re dealing with a staggering dropout rate. In some cities, like Detroit, it’s 75 percent. In many of the big urban areas, it’s over 50 percent, even higher among the black males. When you look at the fact that 80 percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts, being a high school dropout is a ticket to prison for young men. We have an incarceration rate now that’s just incredible. Having ex-inmates coming out at the rate of probably 50,000 a month is creating burdens. They can’t get jobs, they can’t get work, frequently they can’t get an education. Going to jail and the things that lead to that — we can do something about that.

COSBY: Boys started to wear their clothes in a certain way. Then we found out that the reason those [low-slung] pants are like that is because they’re imitating the guys who are in prison. One would immediately think, “Why would a kid want to imitate somebody who’s in prison? Why would anybody do that?” They leave the shoelaces untied. They leave the shirttail hanging out. The cap is on backwards. So they’re making a style out of something. They may be crying out for some adults to make these corrections, but now it’s turning into a fashion statement. Now we get to the point where boys are going into jail for crimes and they’re saying, “Well, that’s all right because I’ll be with my boys.”

POUSSAINT: There’s been a glorification of the thug image. Among a lot of these young black males, there’s a status in the thug image. The gangster rappers also glorify that image. So to dress like that and be thuggish is, like, status. [Young males’] values may get so twisted that they may actually feel they’ll get more status from their buddies by going to jail. They might even get more status among their buddies if they find out you shot somebody. So values get twisted around. It’s like it’s normal, and they live within that kind of experience, which is further tearing down the community.

CW: You write a lot about community colleges and the invaluable role they can play in lifting people out of poverty and onto the ladder of upward mobility. They often get short shrift with people talking about the need to get a four-year college degree. But you talk about them in almost reverential terms: “God bless the community college,” you write. “The front door of this institution welcomes you like your own personal Statue of Liberty — give us your slow starters, your late bloomers, your high school dropouts, your born-again victors.”

COSBY: For people born here, it is our Statute of Liberty. Some people use the difficulty of getting a four-year degree as an excuse. Well, everybody can’t go to college, everyone can’t become a surgeon or one of those big things. But I say, I got something for you: community college for 18 months and you can become a nurse. Fiber optics. Training for construction work.

I just did a [session] in Baltimore. We actually went into a housing project. The chancellor or president of the community college was there. I asked her to come. We began to tell the people in the housing project what is available in terms of courses, classes, and the things that can happen for you. This is true of all the community colleges that I know of in this United States of America. You can get a GED there. You can get a job. People didn’t know it was only 15 minutes from the neighborhood. We have people who are Africans, coming from wherever, moving into a home, and they don’t have money that’s given to them by the government. So they move into a place that’s eight deep in people from the same country. They already know where community college is. They came armed with the want and the dream of America. There are people living, born in America, seven generations or more, who deliberately say they don’t need the education. They’re so depressed. One of the things that I was told by the president of the community college is, “If we get them there, Mr. Cosby, we also have to tell them, ‘Look, you got to stick with it, you got to stay with it.’” Alvin can answer this. I would imagine that people who are coming out of their depressed state and finding success sometimes don’t really believe it.

POUSSAINT: I think that’s true. I think a lot of these people who have been down and out, and feeling helpless and hopeless sometimes don’t feel that making the effort is going to make any difference, that they don’t have to put in all the hard work. So I think these people trying to return into the system, to community college, need a lot of support from everywhere — from their school, from their families — and a lot of help in order to stick with it.

CW: There is also sometimes the issue of negative peer attitudes toward schooling.

COSBY: I was in Oakland, California, and met two young people who had been in the foster care system but were now going to college. People consistently told them that they were not going to be anything, and when people saw them studying, they then said, “You think you’re better than anybody, do you?” Poor people or lower-economic people, looking at someone who wants to make better and begins to pick up a book, laughing at them.

CW: You write about the early part of the 20th century, when popular culture had these horrible, racist portrayals of blacks. You write about the movie The Birth of a Nation being an example of that. Then you fast-forward to today, where you have some equally offensive, horrific imagery that is being produced by black so-called entertainers.

POUSSAINT: Yeah, so-called entertainers, and it sells. And sometimes there are white producers and black producers. But they use a lot of filthy stuff. They use the “N” word. The stuff they’re doing is degrading of black people, degrading of themselves.

CW: How do you combat that?

POUSSAINT: One way of combating is to stand up against it. There were a lot of people afraid to say anything about it. We need people who are spokesmen.

CW: Critics have said you’re just out of touch with popular culture and that some of the rap music lyrics are just expressing the reality of urban life, not glorifying it. You guys get accused of being crotchety old guys.

COSBY: They can throw anything they want at us.

CW: You’ve become such a popular target of criticism that you’ve had one guy [Michael Eric Dyson] even write a whole book about you and your ideas. Are you surprised that what you’ve spoken about has elicited controversy or that people find some of the statements you make controversial?

COSBY: No. I grew up in these neighborhoods. They’re not fooling me or anybody else, I think. It’s important to know that there are these panhandlers and misdirectional people. They get in some church or in some great hall, and they begin to entertain the people with all of these chants and pretending that they’re the great Baptist ministers from way back. The people go along with it because it does feel good. These [panhandlers] make them feel good.

CW: But it’s all an illusion, you’re saying?

COSBY: Very much so.

POUSSAINT: People can groove in a sense of victimhood, they really can — that’s partly the point of the book — and settle for that and actually believe that, and then take responsibility off of themselves.

CW: But there are inequities in society still. There is racism. You can’t say we’re in nirvana.

POUSSAINT: That’s right. Our history has always been — and you see so many examples of it with all the black people who move into the middle class — struggling against the odds, to one degree or the other, and not succumbing. So now when you have fewer remnants of institutional racism, you see people, instead of moving forward, moving backward, taking the low road, and blaming it on the systemic structural situation. That is self-defeating in the end.

COSBY: There are so many people coming forward writing articles putting people, as Alvin said, in that victim mode and telling them not to move, that it’s not their fault. But they are forgetting and excusing murder, excusing child abandonment, excusing family abandonment.

CW: At the beginning of the book — I’m not sure which set of bleak statistics about the state of urban black America you’re talking about — but you write that it’s enough to make you cry. Bob Herbert, in the The New York Times, wrote that there is a sense of real agony or grief evident in both of you over these issues. Is that a fair characterization?

POUSSAINT: I can speak for myself. Yeah, there’s pain. There’s sadness about what’s going on: the loss of life, the loss of opportunity. To see people standing back and retreating, in a way, feeling helpless and hopeless, and not trying to make a difference is frustrating. That makes it even more painful and hard to accept. It’s painful to watch and see so much deteriorate for our young people and for our families and the community.

CW: To really see a significant change, with all due respect to whatever your book can do, doesn’t there need to be a buy-in among black leaders, among church leaders? At one point in the book, you say churches need to reach out more. Doesn’t there have to be a wholesale turning of attitudes?

POUSSAINT: My feeling is that more and more people — and it’s not just because of our book — are buying into the mission. You see more father-initiative programs. You see more programs where people are talking about ex-inmates. You see programs where they’re trying to steer the kids straight, get them mentors, all kinds of other things. Then you see more emphasis and demands that people are making on parents, that they have to start doing their job. I think there’s a groundswell of a lot of things happening all around the country.

CW: People need to hear it from leader figures, as well. On Father’s Day, Barack Obama delivered a message — for which he got a lot of attention — that had a lot of echoes of what you’ve been saying. What was your reaction to his comments?

POUSSAINT: We welcomed Obama’s speech. We felt he did say a lot of things that we’ve been talking about. We wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Daily News about a week after Obama’s speech in which we said so. We then talked about specific ways in which black men can get themselves in a position to be better fathers and be involved with their children.

CW: What did you make of the controversy afterward involving Jesse Jackson, where following an interview he gave on Fox News, a still-live mike picked up his comments ripping Obama, saying he was talking down to black people?

COSBY: It is what it is. How can you say anything else? The mike is open and there it is, ladies and gentlemen.

CW: Do you feel some optimism now that, four years after, in some ways, you got this ball rolling?

COSBY: It’s up to the people. The people have to feel that they can, and they have to want to. That is where we need — if you want to call them leaders, fine. I think instead of leaders, “initiators,” people who can get started. What Alvin and I have found is that the apathy is a beast. People who are depressed are sort of [victim] to that beast of apathy. It’s up to people in the community to be the therapists. You have to go by the house. You have to call. If you’re going to run for office, you have to have a whole bunch of people out there on the phones calling people. You have to have people knocking on the door. These are the things that are needed to get the people excited and get them rolling.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

CW: Of course, action has to come after the talk, right?

COSBY: The revolution is in your apartment, and the revolution is in your house, it’s in your apartment building, it’s in your neighborhood. But the ugly has lifted its head to fight, also, because you get all this blogging going on and people still fighting and calling me names. But they don’t realize that Bill Cosby is not the enemy.