No lull seen in furor over Cosby remarks

Reactions: The star's appearance Sunday at the NAACP convention is bound to feed the debate.

July 10, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

In late May, Bill Cosby blamed low-income African-Americans for squandering the civil rights movement's legacy by giving their children "$500 sneakers" instead of books.

Then, earlier this month, Cosby leveled more criticism at the hip-hop generation: "They think they're hip. They can't read; they can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere."

Cosby's comments sparked both howls and applause, and the controversy is likely to continue during the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual convention in Philadelphia, which begins today. Cosby is scheduled to appear before the NAACP Tuesday night as the debate continues.

Cosby's critics call him an elitist for aiming his criticism at low-income African-Americans, but others applaud his courage for speaking honestly about what they see as a growing social problem.

One thing is certain - Cosby has opened the curtain on a private conversation about black personal responsibility and thrust it onto the national stage.

And his comments resonate because he's a beloved figure who has managed to transcend race on his way to becoming a successful comedian, actor, author and academician.

Some of Cosby's black critics say there's nothing new about his message and they can't understand why he has gotten so much media attention. For years, some religious leaders, educators and black advocates have also encouraged black youth to look in the mirror rather than to blame others.

But others in the black community are angered by Cosby's candor. They accuse him of verbally assaulting the people he should be helping and compare his highly publicized criticisms to airing a family secret.

"It's not what he said; it's the way he said it and where he said it that makes people angry," said Deanna Thomas of Essex, who works in the child care center at the city's Paquin school for pregnant teens. "I see teens struggling, and I agree with him."

Amid the media attention, a new debate is emerging: What will be the cost of Cosby's comments now that they've been heard by "mixed company?"

Joe Feagin, a graduate research professor of sociology at the University of Florida, said the Cosby controversy could be detrimental for race relations.

"This call for personal responsibility is extremely commonplace in black communities," said Feagin, who has studied race and racism for 40 years. "But it's one thing to say that to a member of your family, and quite another to say that to people who are oppressing you."

By not balancing his remarks with the mention that racism confronts black working-class people, Cosby's public criticisms become one-sided, he said.

"These inaccurate stereotypes are very harmful," he said. "Anyone who spends time with black people knows there is a huge range of different types of people. The truth is most low-income black people don't fit that stereotype."

Cosby's first tirade occurred during a Washington gala in May commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that outlawed segregated public schools. Among his comments, he said:

"People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around. ... The lower economic people are not holding up their end of this deal. These people are not partnering. They are buying things for their kids - $500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics."

This month, he unabashedly underscored his views during an appearance in Chicago at the annual conference of the Rainbow/Push Coalition & Citizenship Education Fund.

Sarah Smith, 81, of Gwynn Oak said Cosby's comments smack of classism and unfairly paint the young "hip-hop generation" with a broad brush.

"His problem is, he's made it, and now he's dogging the people who didn't make it," she said. "I agree that the hip-hop youngsters are different from us. But you have to give them a chance. If the older people would back them, they would have the support they need."

Jerry Townsend of Randallstown said Cosby needed to say what some African-Americans have thought for years.

"In order to progress in this particular culture, you are going to have to learn the King's English," he said. "Ebonics isn't going to do it."

In an interview this week on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, Cosby continued to defend his comments, calling the high incarceration rate of black men an epidemic that needs immediate attention.

"I realize there is a great deal of racism out there, but we all know that," Cosby said. "But then there's a time where you have to look in the mirror at the self."

Tony Whitehead, an anthropology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park who does research in low-income black communities in Baltimore, said Cosby's remarks could result in more attention to such problems - or they could give people a reason to ignore them.

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