Jewish World Review June 1, 2004 /12 Sivan 5764
What Bill Cosby meant to say
Had Bill Cosby chosen milder, more genteel language for his recent controversial critique of bad habits that keep poor black folks poor, we wouldn't still be talking about it.
Instead, an unusually large number of people, most of them black, have stopped me on the streets and elsewhere with a pronounced sense of urgency just to ask, "What do you think about what Bill Cosby said?"
Of course, what they really want to do is tell me what they think about what Bill Cosby said at the recent Howard University fundraiser in Washington's Constitution Hall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
"The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal," Cosby said. "These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids$500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for `Hooked on Phonics.'"
Remarks like that have been reported out of context and misinterpreted so widely that Cosby took the unusual step of releasing a statement to the news media and appearing on Tavis Smiley's PBS program Wednesday night to clarify what he meant.
"The mistake I made was not in clarifying that I wasn't talking about `all' [poor people]," he said, according to the broadcast transcript on Smiley's Web site.
Yes, as any preacher or pundit can tell you, that little word "some" enables you to make all sorts of generalities about people. After all, there are "some" people who will fit into just about any category.
But Cosby's speech would not have made news if he had moderated his language with such qualifiers. News breeds on conflict and it is not news in the mainstream media that a black person is admonishing other black people to be more self-reliant.
So, to paraphrase a mayoral press secretary I used to know, don't report what Cosby said; report what he meant.
He is justifiably frustrated. He is an iconic superstar who has used his millions, along with hundreds of hours of donated time, to help black colleges and numerous other self-help causes, including an educational foundation named after his slain son Ennis Cosby, himself a crime victim. Yet Bill Cosby hasn't received nearly as much publicity for all of that as he has received for his Constitution Hall outburst.
He blamed absentee parenting as the root of alarming black crime and dropout rates and for that he was not apologetic. "You can't just blame white people for this, man; You can't," he told Smiley. "Whether I'm right wing or left, some people are not parenting."
I was particularly delighted to see Cosby dismiss the widely heard concern that he was giving white conservatives ammunition to trash the black liberal agenda: "I don't give me a blank about those right-wing white people," he told Smiley. "They can't do any more to us than they've already started with. ... But by the same token, for G-d's sake, turn around and let's have some meetings and say, `Brother, um, let me explain to you. You're the father of so-forth and so-on. Brother, you gotta rein them in, man. You gotta go talk to 'em."
Indeed, we do need "some meetings." We also need action. We, who happen to be African-American parents, in particular, need to stop worrying about what white conservative talk-show hosts, for example, think about us and start talking about what we are doing to ourselves.
But then what? What, I hear readers ask, is to be done?
I received one answer on the evening following Cosby's clarifying PBS interview: The year-end ceremonies of a wonderful little 13-year-old volunteer program called College Bound Inc. It pairs underprivileged, but promising, District of Columbia high school students with college-educated adult volunteers who mentor the kids through SAT preparation, scholarship applications and all of the other ins-and-outs of college preparation.
You can find mentoring programs like this in just about every city. We need more. They also need more volunteers. As Kpakpundu Ezeze, board chairman of College Bound, said: "We could serve more kids if we had some more adult volunteers."
That's right. You don't need Cosby's millions to help the next generation grow up with the right values. A little time, attention and advice can go a long way, especially when many of today's kids are not receiving enough of it anyplace else.
I'm glad Cosby realizes that his critics were right about one thing: It is not just the "lower economic people" who are failing to parent their children properly and steer them, as Jesse Jackson says, away from dope and up toward hope.
As the West African proverb says, it takes a village.
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