Paula Zahn of CNN interviewed comedian Bill Cosby for a televised special over the weekend about his campaign to improve the well-being and future prospects of young black Americans. Cosby grew up in the ghettos of Philadelphia to become an Emmy- and Grammy Award-winning television and movie star. He was the first African American to star in a television series — the successful late-’60s program, I Spy. His family situation comedy, The Cosby Show, garnered multiple Emmy Awards while subtly providing pointers for good parenting.
Unlike most comedy that draws humor from dysfunction, Cosby’s humor came from universal human experiences and the normal foibles of family life. The family’s race was irrelevant; everyone recognized the situations’ authenticity and humor. In those days, Cosby spoke indirectly through the appealing Huxtable family. With gentle humor he prodded and encouraged his audience to greater understanding of the human condition. He held up positive, professional role models. He inspired with realistic goals — beyond athletic prowess and musical stardom — to which young people could aspire.
But now Cosby is impatient. Perhaps it is the wisdom of age; perhaps it is the sense of mortality that comes with growing older. Now, he speaks with the passion and urgency of an Old Testament prophet. And, he refuses to let his critics distract him from his mission.
Cosby is telling young blacks that if they don’t get an education and speak proper English their opportunities will be limited. He is warning black youths that the hip hop, ghetto culture is destroying their future. The anti-intellectual and anti-education fad, he reminds them, has made too many African-American men unemployable. He talks about children having children. About how one-parent households are depriving children of fathers, so that two out of three black babies are born into fatherless households, and how the illegitimacy rate that was less than 20 percent in 1940 is now nearly 70 percent.
The liberal establishment is in an uproar. They accuse Cosby of “demeaning” black people and of being racially divisive. “It’s not their fault,” say sociologists who emphasize cultural obstacles like poverty and racism. Some call Cosby “angry” and his campaign “counterproductive.” They utter the old canard about “blaming the victim.” Barbara Ehrenreich, a white liberal woman, headlined her New York Times article about Cosby’s concerns, “Billionaire bashes poor blacks.” Some experts are marshalling statistics showing improvement in SATs and the decline in teen pregnancies; they criticize Cosby’s “charges” about the causes of black underachievement and dysfunctional behavior and call instead for “dialogue” about the problems. But truth be told, these critics probably don’t actually want to hear Cosby’s contribution to the dialogue.
Others counter the criticisms by citing Cosby’s record of assisting blacks, including providing scholarships and endowing historic black colleges and universities. They say that Cosby’s philanthropy toward blacks inoculates him against the liberal critics. According to them, Cosby has paid his dues and is entitled to speak the truth.
The criticism from one side doesn’t deter Cosby, and he seems disinterested in praise from the other. He asked Zahn, “How long you gonna whisper about a smallpox epidemic in your apartment building when bodies are coming out under the sheets?” He is a driven man with a high calling, and he is taking his message on the road to meet with leaders of black communities in town hall sessions, with teachers in schools and parents at PTAs. He is gathering ministers and opinion leaders for frank talk about what went wrong and how to put things right.
Cosby gets pretty specific: He criticizes black parents for spending “$500 on sneakers” but they won’t spend “$200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.'” He has no sympathy for black men who, in their frustration over unemployment beat up their women. They can’t find jobs, Cosby explains, because they didn’t get educations and they are taking it out on black women. When criticized for airing blacks’ “dirty laundry,” Cosby replies that the dirty laundry of illiteracy, profanity, criminality and crudity is already hanging out for everyone to see.
When he hears that black leaders are mad at him because he is too hard on black sensibilities, he says, “Let them stay mad.” Cosby has no sympathy for those who turn their backs on the opportunities that are readily available in America — even for the poorest among us. He bluntly says too many black young people today are failing to take advantage of the “hard won” opportunities that came out of the civil rights movement.
He strongly believes that young people need to be told about the heroes and heroines who made those opportunities possible. “Empowerment,” says Cosby, comes from “learning standard English, math and graduating from school.” Education, he says, is the key to getting out of poverty. Cosby proudly points to the black leaders who, though growing up in deprived circumstances, have studied hard, taken responsibility for their decisions and excelled in various professions.
Cosby is a hero for tackling a taboo subject. Data clearly indicate that the black community is in crisis. For instance, it has been reported that three out of four black males in Baltimore don’t graduate from high school and, according to demographers, the situation is similar in other cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. About 45 percent of the 2 million people in jail are blacks (mostly males) and about 45 percent of the nation’s homicides are black males who are killed by other black males.
Years ago, Cosby held up a mirror through his television show so that the nation could see a black professional family that valued education and taught personal responsibility. He told a gathering in Chicago in July that now “is the time to turn the mirror around” to enable the black family to see itself. Cosby is probably the only person in America who could get away with holding up a mirror to reflect the effects of destructive choices on black people.
The truth is hard to look at in its starkest images. But we all need to face up to Cosby’s observations and learn from his wisdom because the social pathologies that he laments are affecting not just the black community, but white and Hispanic families as well. Once again, Cosby reflects on the human condition — only this time no one is laughing.