Tough Talk: Bill Cosby

July 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


BILL COSBY ON SHOW: Let’s put on some music around here.

RAY SUAREZ: Entertainer Bill Cosby is known for making people laugh. But this summer, he’s been at the center of controversy for his tough talk aimed at some in black America, most recently at a Rainbow-Push Coalition dinner in Chicago earlier this month, where he criticized some black men.

BILL COSBY: (July 1) You young men and old men, you’ve got to stop beating up your women because you can’t find a job, because you didn’t want to get an education.

RAY SUAREZ: Speaking to the mostly black audience, Cosby disparaged the casual use of racial slurs by African American entertainers.

BILL COSBY: When you put on a record and that record is yelling – (bleep) this- and (bleep) that, and you’ve got your six- or seven- year-old sitting in the backseat of the car, those children hear that.

RAY SUAREZ: And he said too many black parents are avoiding personal responsibility.

BILL COSBY: It is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us. And it keeps a person frozen in their seat.

RAY SUAREZ: Cosby came under fire for those comments.

REP ELIJAH CUMMINGS: It gives a society with racist tendencies at times an excuse. “They’re not doing for themselves” while so many African Americans are working very, very hard.

RAY SUAREZ: It was the second time in two months Cosby’s remarks drew controversy. In May at Howard University, Cosby said this: “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 spent $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.'” He further clarified those remarks on PBS’ the Tavis Smiley Show in May.

BILL COSBY: What I’m saying here… and the mistake I made was in saying that there are people who are striving and working in the lower economic area. The people who are not holding up their end is quite obvious to me: And that happens to be those people, to me, who don’t have a clue of education– learning standard English, math, and graduating from school– what that has for them in terms of empowerment.

RAY SUAREZ: Cosby appeared earlier this week at the NAACP Convention in Philadelphia, but steered clear of any controversy and stuck to comedy.

Two viewpoints now on Cosby’s comments. Dr. Alvin Poussaint is a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston. He also was a script consultant to the Cosby Show. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer for the Village Voice and a contributor to several other magazines.

Well, Dr. Poussaint, Bill Cosby said what he said, and he clarified and extended his remarks. Do you agree with the thrust of what was he had to say?

DR. ALVIN POUSSAINT: Well, I think I agree with the thrust and his concern. I think a lot of people interpret it as him bashing black people, black poor people. He clarified himself and said he was not talking about all black poor people and so on, and of course a lot of black middle class people aren’t doing the right thing too. But I think the spirit of what he said was he felt that the black community, particularly people who are not making it, should be paying more attention to education, basically was saying that, and that parents should be paying more attention to good parenting, because a lot of bad things were happening to our youth.

And I think that’s pretty obvious that it is. And it’s at a crisis proportion in many of our cities. In Baltimore, 76 percent of black males don’t graduate from high school. Of the two million people in jail, about 45 percent are African-American, most have been males. Of the homicides in the country, about 45 percent are African-American males, mostly killing other black people and black males.

So there is a crisis, and the dropout rate from high school is still very high. It’s better, but it gets camouflaged in the statistics. In Baltimore again, 50 percent of 9th graders don’t graduate from high school. Well, if you get pockets like that in urban areas like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, there’s a serious problem for the black community. And I think he was saying people have to pay attention to it.

He made the remarks in Washington when the NAACP president was there because he wanted to call it to the attention of the leadership in the country, and he wanted to make his statements go national. Perhaps he didn’t say it with the best finesse and so on, but I think he was talking symbolically most of the time, people have attacked him because of the statistics. Unless you have statistics in front of you, you’re going to get into trouble. I get into trouble trying to use statistics.

But I think basically what he was saying is that we have to salvage more of these young people who are going down the tubes, losing their lives and so on. And even though we have that very huge incarceration rate, and in some cities like Baltimore and Washington, close to 50 percent of the men, the young men particularly are under the criminal justice system’s jurisdiction in one way or the other, so there are problems and I think he was trying to call people’s attention to it. I think that we should take it in that spirit.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me stop you right there. Let me get a reaction from Ta-Nehisi Coates. You got a couple pieces out of Bill Cosby’s remarks. What provoked you to write and also respond to Dr. Poussaint?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I think it’s quite clear that, you know, in the African-American community there are plenty of problems and we can look at the statistics and see that. But in terms of Bill Cosby and the remarks he made on both occasions, I think this is really a case of perception first as reality.

So when Bill Cosby called out young African-American women and says that we’re having a four, five, six, I’m sorry, they’re having four, five, six seven babies at a time, I have to look at that and consider that the teen pregnancy rate over the past decade among young black women has declined by 40 percent. When he says that young black kids are not valuing education, I think that disparages the very real fact that the gap in SAT scores between whites and blacks has been cut by half. When he critiques black criminality and sort of gives us this picture of young black boys running wild in the street, I think that stands in contrast with the fact that since 1994, the crime rates across the border plunged, and particularly among young black men.

Not to say we don’t have any real problems. There have been studies in New York that have basically concluded that among African-American men, the employment rate is around 50 percent or so. There have been plenty of studies that have looked at the fact that they have too many households in which there’s only one-parent homes. So I don’t think, you know, it’s so much that we are without fathers, I think it’s the nature and the way in which the dialogue is taking place.

The solutions to those problems don’t lie in attacking the way people dress, they don’t lie in attacking the way people talk, they certainly don’t lie in attacking what people name their kids, as Bill Cosby did. My name is Ta-Nehisi, my son’s name is Samari, my partner’s name is Kinyata; my best friend’s son’s name is Kamati… all these people are God fearing honest people who want the same thing that any other American would want. And when Bill Cosby points us out because of the way we talk, the way we name our kids as opposed to sticking with the reality, have you to wonder how much of this is actually about reality and how much of it is actually about appearance.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is this a problem of a man who is in his late 60s being somewhat removed from youth culture and just sort of spraying it with buckshot? Or is this an attempt to provoke a conversation, apparently it’s worked in getting people talking about some of the issues that he names —

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I would argue that in fact it actually hasn’t worked. I can remember when this happened about, you know, ten or fifteen years ago when Reverend Calvin Butts wanted to take on some of the issues that were going on in rap music, as Cosby is trying to do now. And what I remember of Calvin Butts is most people my age remember him being angry and steamrolling a bunch of CD’s. The same thing happened with C. Delores Tucker and it really didn’t change anything.

I have no problem with the debate. Some people have said oh Cosby is airing out dirty laundry. I think, you know, if it’s a real critique, let’s have our critique, let’s bring out statistics to the table and let’s have that debate. But let’s have it honestly. Let’s not have it by demeaning people. And if we’re going to have it, Cosby at least – you know, it’s not so much the problem that he’s 60 years old, it’s the problem that he’s 60 years old and hasn’t invested effort in researching the lives, the culture of young people.

You can’t watch two hours of BET or listen to a CD and then try to critique hip-hop, any more than I can listen to one John Coltrane CD and try to critique jazz or look at one episode of the Cosby Show and then try to critique the career of Bill Cosby. I think his critique – I mean, I really understand the issues; I understand why he’s angry, but what we’re getting is anger and it’s not helpful and it’s not productive in terms of an inter-generational dialogue.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Poussaint, what do you make of the critique that yes as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes there are real problems, but this didn’t get at it?

DR. ALVIN POUSSAINT: Oh, I think there are real problems, and I think it is getting at it, I think the fact that Reverend Jesse Jackson has him out to address his convention, the fact that other black leaders all over the country, parents, people I listened to in the community are all very concerned and interested in what Bill Cosby had to say and most of them, I would bet, support what he said, that there are issues and problems that need to be addressed, and yes everyone would agree that there’s been improvement in a lot of areas. But we’re still far, far behind, and we shouldn’t be complacent about our current problems. And Bill felt that people are too complacent and not doing enough.

When we — a generation gap, for instance, is that a lot of black youth now are anti-education and anti-intellectualism, who feel that getting an education is being white, is acting white. We never had that in previous generations, this is something new. I think this is very, very disconcerting that black youth are culturally adapting such postures when the high school dropout rate is so high, when they’re going to jail at increasing rates, it’s in fact really very high, and in jail about 70 percent of inmates have not graduated from high school. So Cosby’s plea around educating, parents really tending to their children, reading to them, teaching them how to speak standard English is well taken and very important.

I’m a psychiatrist, and I focus on parenting all the time in black communities, and it’s something that they welcome in fact. And I think that we have an opportunity to do something here, as a population and blacks are stirred up and interested in this right now, because what Cosby has done to really make a difference. And that means a whole community, that doesn’t mean we should ignore racism, there’s racism in the criminal justice system. It means we also need good schools, but if he mobilizes black parents not only perhaps so they do better by their children but also become active in fighting for better schools in their communities, and interchanging more with the teachers, I think when we really want to find out some of the problems, we need to talk to school teachers in the community, parents in the community, where they’re really having these types of problems, and they’re not everywhere, but they are a significant part of black America at this time.

We still have a poverty rate of over 25 percent in the black community, and many of these problems are associated with poverty, and we have to attack that on all levels, of policy and so on. But in the meantime, we should not sit back and be complacent about being parents, we should always be struggling to overcome. That’s been our history, to overcome and succeed against the odds.

RAY SUAREZ: Ta-Nehisi Coates, a call to action, if it starts with Bill Cosby and ends up being a dialogue among members of Operation Push, people who were delegates to the NAACP meetings, people who watched Tavis Smiley, is there — does it eventually get to the people that Bill Cosby wants to reach?

TA-NEHISI COATES: No, I don’t think it does. I think what I’m seeing right now is really a dialogue among people who are pretty much Bill Cosby fans and are of his quote unquote generation, and I about that I mean the civil rights generation. The problem here and I heard a lot of it in what Dr. Poussaint, you know, just said, it’s not so much that we as young people are arguing for complacency or arguing for a lack of a dialogue within the community, it’s that I would hesitate to say the entire civil rights generation has made up its mind about young people, but in what Dr. Poussaint just said, I think I heard the problem.

When you say that young black people are anti-education, there’s really nothing to talk about, because you’ve clearly made up your mind about young black people, Cosby has clearly made up his mind about young black people. It’s not the sort of dialogue that seeks to ask questions. It’s a dialogue that comes at us having already formed conclusions. And, you know, far as I’m concerned that’s not a dialogue.

DR. ALVIN POUSSAINT: You have to speak the truth. If we have those types of problems, we have to face them. I think by denying them and left refusing to look at them the truth that, well, it’s a fact by not Cosby by other educators and researchers in fact have given information and produced studies indicating that a lot of black youth feel that getting an education is acting white, and because of that they turn against education because it’s not hip to be educated if it’s acting white and giving up your so-called authentic black identity.

RAY SUAREZ: We have time for a quick response.


RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, respond to that point please.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I would just stick with my original point, if we’re going to have a dialogue, it cannot come from us making statements at each other, it has to come from us asking questions of each other. Missing in all of this, I don’t see much dialogue with young black people. I have yet to see Cosby in any of these clips sitting down asking questions of young black people as opposed to making statements about them.

RAY SUAREZ: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, gentlemen, thank you both.