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Cosby isn't alone in asking blacks to own up to problems

By DeWayne Wickham

"Let's talk black." That's what Jesse Jackson used to say to black reporters when he wanted to have an off-the-record discussion about an issue that he thought was too racially sensitive to be discussed in front of others.

Last week, Bill Cosby made no effort to limit the reach of his words when he "talked black" at a gala held in the nation's capital to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that outlawed school segregation.

Almost from the moment he took the stage of Washington's DAR Constitution Hall, the comedian-turned-philanthropist lapsed into a scathing indictment of blacks whose self-destructive behavior mocks the sacrifices of people who fought to end racial segregation in public schools.

"I'm talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange (prison jumpsuit)," he said during his speech, an audiotape portion of which I obtained. "Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you don't know he had a pistol?" Cosby asked, drawing nervous laughter from the largely black audience.

As a stand-up comedian, Cosby has few equals. But as a black celebrity who is willing to publicly say that some blacks are their own worst enemy, he belongs to an even smaller group.

What gives Cosby's words so much impact is that he is widely respected among blacks. He's not the "great black hope" of Republicans. Cosby is no Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court justice, or Roy Innis, civil rights leader. He isn't Ward Connerly, who opposes affirmative action, or J.C. Watts, former congressman. When he speaks out, a lot of blacks listen.

Publicly placing blame

What he said last week was the kind of thing most blacks say only to other blacks in far more private settings. Cosby blasted black parents who do little to raise their children, he chided black women who have multiple babies out of wedlock, and he derided black men who engage in criminal conduct.

Of course, Cosby knows there are external factors that contribute to the disintegration of black families, but he also understands that some blacks-like some whites-are often to blame for the bad things that happen to them.

" Brown vs. Board of Education is no longer a white person's problem," he said. "We've got to take the neighborhood back. They're standing on the corner and can't speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't. Where you is.' You used to talk a certain way on the corner, and when you got in the house, you switched to English. Everybody knows that at some point you switch to English, except these knuckleheads."

A view held by others

Cosby is not alone when it comes to such tough introspection. "You can go to any (black) barbershop or beauty shop and hear the same conversation," said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who was there when Cosby spoke. "Much of what he said I've been saying in my speeches."

In 2002, unwed black women gave birth to nearly 70% of the black children born that year. That same year, 12% of black men in their 20s and 30s were in jail or prison. In 2001, 50% of black high school students graduated.

Too many liberals believe that racism is the only culprit here; and too many conservatives think the blame rests entirely on the people who are the faces behind these awful statistics. The truth, I'm convinced, is somewhere in between. But personal responsibility, where the biggest breakdown seems to have occurred, is the piece of this troubling puzzle that blacks can exercise the most control over.

I think that's the message Cosby wanted to drive home when he mounted the stage and began to "talk black."

DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA TODAY.

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Very interesting article.

The African American family is in jeopardy and gay marriage isn't even legal yet. (joke, sorry don't mean to be insensitive here)

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Very interesting article.

The African American family is in jeopardy and gay marriage isn't even legal yet. (joke, sorry don't mean to be insensitive here)

Tweety :chuckle


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I just love Bill Cosby. I think he's both very funny and very wise. Thanks for posting that article, Steph. :)

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Great article. I have always had a deep respect for Bill Cosby. He is a man who puts his money where his mouth is.

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I wish someone of his intelligence and wisdom would run for president! Or even him!!!! I vote for him in a heartbeat!


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I wish someone of his intelligence and wisdom would run for president! Or even him!!!! I vote for him in a heartbeat!


First let me say I have long been a fan of Bill Cosby. Many many laughs.

BUT - Should he run for president?

Well - remember he has cheated and admitted it.

Would that disqualify him?

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He cheated, Jesse Jackson cheated, Bill Clinton all too famously cheated, so what? Most people in positions of real power have large egos that often get in the way of rational, appropriate thought.

Michael Jordan cheated; many, if not most, sport 'heros' have failings.

We all do -- every last one of us is fallible in some way. that does not disqualify an intelligent, thoughtful man from using his intelligence and insight into uplifting those who could benefit from some tough love.

12% of black men in prison? 70% of children born out of wedlock, with multiple fathers for these families? These are frightening statistics, so incredibly sad. The energy that goes into living in this maladaptive fashion could be put to far better use.

I believe he's right about parents and personal responsibility being qualities that many families have done away with. How many times do we see those addicted to substances come to us, in our ER's and inpatient units, c/o 'powelessness' over their addiction, while asking for dilaudid? come on.

I was raised with an ETOH father and an enabling mother. i still learned personal responsibility, somehow, although I learned it the hard way. I pay my bills, do my best at work, own up to my mistakes at work and try to do the best I can every day. Some days are easier than others, but I always, always want to do the right thing.

I don't care about someone's sexual indescretions. Look at the Hollywood lifestyle -- it's not exactly conservative. All things considered, context in these ideas is crucial. All things considered, I think that Bill Cosby (while maybe he's a bit of a snob, my own personal issue with him) is that he is talking about personal responsibility and common sense values, even though he lives in a society where those very ideas are not exactly high priority.

He'd get my vote for president, mostly because he'd never run! He has known tragic loss and we all know that does change a person; perhaps his ideas of personal responsibility come from some perceived notion of failing his son. (I personally don't think he did, but who knows what is in his heart).

And Tweety, I'm all for same sex marriage or civil commitments. Why should society be the ones to tell you who you can love, endow with your assets, make your healthcare decisions? It's true that you can get around all of these things with legal paperwork, but why should you and your partner have to work harder than my husband and me? What makes us, as a couple, any better?

Thank you for reading my liberal thoughts.

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First let me say I have long been a fan of Bill Cosby. Many many laughs.

BUT - Should he run for president?

Well - remember he has cheated and admitted it.

Would that disqualify him?

absolutely not. his self-confessed fallibility only adds to the integrity of his character, me thinks. he appears to be moral but not holier than thou. there's a difference between having an affair (which is not to be condoned) vs. having sex because of exploiting one's power..so no, he would not be disqualified based on his affair.


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Well, actually, black leaders and artists have been talking about the self-destructive aspects of the black community for years. Remember the hip hop anthem "self-destruction, you're headed for self destruction". Tupac, Public Enemy, KRS-1, Jesse Jackson, MLK, Malcolm, Farraqan, all the leading black intellectuals... the list goes on. Maybe they haven't directed their comments to a white only audience or they don't happen to be the mainstream black voices that white people happen to listen to. First of all, why should black leaders go out of their way to direct this type of observation to white audiences? Well, let's see... maybe because it would be used by generally ignorant and bigotted people to draw erroneous conclusions and make faulty generalizations. I mean the hypocrisy of it all.

P.S. I am not implying that such reaction is what's going on in this forum, BTW.

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I agree with Bill Cosby too.

Unfortunately some talk radio hosts blame the liberal teachers. Some callers make the problems seem genetic.

THIS from TV is just plain strange:


This is a partial transcript from "The O'REILLY Factor," May 20, 2004 that has been edited for [clarity]

BILL O'REILLY HOST: In the "Personal Story" segment tonight, Bill Cosby spoke at a gala in Washington on Monday and severely criticized African-Americans who are not raising their children responsibly.

Cosby compared these people to the blacks of the 1960's and said, "These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we've got these knuckleheads walking round...the lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting, they're buying things for kids -- $500 sneakers, for what? And they won't spend $200 for "Hooked on Phonics"...I can't even talk the way these people talk: "why you ain't, where you is..."

Now some of the audience were angry with Cosby, but the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume told me today on the phone he agrees with the comedian.

With us now is Reverend Sekou, the executive director of "New York Common Ground ," a community outreach group and author of the book, "Urban Souls."

All right, Reverend, do you object to what Mr. Cosby said, first of all?

OSAYGYEFO SEKOU, NEW YORK COMMON GROUND: Well, first and foremost, I think we wanted to articulate the fact that Mr. Cosby is an icon in our American life, that he distills certain notions of black folks as related to his show, "Cosby Show."

O'REILLY: Right.

SEKOU: And so, I think that it's important for us to keep track of that, because we don't want to demonize anyone. I am first and foremost a Christian. And the gospel doesn't allow me to do that.

Secondly, I disagree with any comments that attempt to limit the ways in which people of African descent are acknowledged and dealt with. And so that we want to expand the conversation in that there are a multiplicity of poor people who are working hard every day, who are loving their children, who are radically committed to the Democratic project, who are activists and things of that nature.

And so, there are some of us who believe that there has to be an expanded conversation about the ways in which people find themselves living in circumstances out of...

O'REILLY: So you -- do you object to the generalness of his remarks?


O'REILLY: All right. But you know, I do that all the time, reverend, to make a point to, shock people, hyperbole, use a little bit of hyperbole there. And you say hey, what's going on.

But let's be honest here. You're an honest guy. When you have 70 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate as the African-American community does in America, OK, you got a cultural collapse on your hands.

SEKOU: Well, not necessarily. When we look at...

O'REILLY: Really?

SEKOU: ...the fact that single mothers are disproportionately the amount raising families, they should be celebrated and not demonized. Secondly, Jesus' mother was a single mother. So we want to be clear that...

O'REILLY: I think St. Joseph was in the house. Yes.

SEKOU: No, no, no, no. There was not -- she was not married to her - to Jesus' father.

O'REILLY: Well, I mean in the traditional sense.

SEKOU: And in the traditional sense. And we want to be clear on that, that if something about understanding that simply because one is born in a single-parent home, it does not mean that one does not have certain kinds...

O'REILLY: Look, I don't want to demonize anybody. But if...

SEKOU: Secondly, I think the most interesting point that he's raised, that has to be distilled, is this question of comparing the folks of the '60's to young people today. There are a multiplicity of young organizers around this country, such as my own organization, New York Common Ground.

The folks with Jobs with Justice, the New York Unemployment Project, the National Political Hip-Hop Convention, there are great young people who are organizing in a way to keep track of these questions of poverty. None of the presidential candidates are dealing critically with these questions of poverty about the proliferation of the underground economy and things of that nature.

O'REILLY: OK, maybe that's true. But Cosby says...

SEKOU: So we need have that conversation in a way...

O'REILLY: Whoa, whoa, whoa. We're having a conversation here. But Cosby says forget about the politicians dealing with it. You deal with it, African-Americans.

SEKOU: And people in the African-American community...

O'REILLY: You deal with it.

SEKOU: We're dealing with it every day.

O'REILLY: You see...

SEKOU: The folks are dealing with it every day. The vast majority of our children don't go to...

O'REILLY: But the stats don't belie your optimism.

Look, let me give you another stat, all right? The rate of incarceration for black males 18 to 24 is eight times what it is for whites.

SEKOU: And we have to deal with these questions of the ways in which the criminal justice system has placed its eyes and ears...

O'REILLY: So you're blaming the wrong people.

SEKOU: No, not necessarily...

O'REILLY: You aren't? Cosby's preaching self-reliance. You're preaching societal responsibility.

SEKOU: And - no. No, no, no. I'm saying that part of being a Democratic citizen, the demos, has to do with everyone. You, me, everyone in the nation being accountable for the little boy on the street.

The best of the democratic project, the best of the African-American civil rights movement, has been always linking personal responsibility to social obligations. You can't live in a whorehouse and not turn a trick.

O'REILLY: Well, I agree with you. I think we ought to look out for the kids.

SEKOU: So eventually poor people are going to find themselves in a situation where they're not of their own choosing. When we look at NAFTA taking jobs overseas means young people don't have access to a decent wage.

O'REILLY: Look, you're macroing it out.

SEKOU: And so -- no, it's not macro. It is not macro...

O'REILLY: All right, hold it. Let me get something in here.

Now I agree with you that all have to look out for the kids. All of us have to look out for the kids.


SEKOU: But I disagree with you in the sense that what Cosby is saying is right. There are significant numbers of African-American parents and white parents as well, all right, who are not raising their kids responsibly. And those parents should be...

SEKOU: And not only in the inner city. They're in Columbine.


SEKOU: They are in Paducah, Kentucky. They're in...

O'REILLY: You are saying it's society's fault, rather than their fault.

SEKOU: No. I'm saying that the society has a moral and ethical obligation to care for the most vulnerable members of the civilization.

O'REILLY: That's true.

SEKOU: And as a result of that, to simply point out black families and say they're the problems when we look at the school shootings around this country, just - happening in communities....

O'REILLY: Making an excuse.

SEKOU: It is not excuse. Excuse has to do with the fact that we have a president who cannot put two sentences together, who is not and never...

O'REILLY: Now you're going into an illogical...

SEKOU: No. It's not a new launch. It's not illogical..

O'REILLY: Sure it is.

SEKOU: Poor people are catching hell and there's no conversation about it. And we're demonizing...

O'REILLY: And we're demonizing...

SEKOU: You work. You weight out of it, and you get educated. That's it. If you're going to count on Bush to do...

SEKOU: No, it's not counting on Bush. I'm saying that all of us have an obligation and when we look at what is happening...

O'REILLY: All right.

SEKOU: With this country, poor people are catching hell. There's no legislative mandate for it.

O'REILLY: All right, it's a good conversation.

SEKOU: And if one can live righteously every day in America, and still not be able to make a dollar...

O'REILLY: All right, Reverend, thanks for coming in.

SEKOU: Thank you.

O'REILLY: I agree with Cosby.

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