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Cosby's criticism still reverberates


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Cosby's criticism still reverberates

By Steve Miller


Published May 27, 2004


The comments last week from entertainer Bill Cosby beseeching blacks to stop blaming whites for their problems continue to serve as talk-show fodder and pundit subject matter.

    Radio hosts and columnists have ranted and raved about the merits and downsides of the comments and show no sign of relenting.

    Speaking to a 75 percent black audience at Constitution Hall on May 17, Mr. Cosby blamed blacks for many of the ills that have befallen the race, a sentiment that is anathema in many quarters. The occasion was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 50th anniversary commemoration of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools.

    "People used to be ashamed," he said.

     These days, he said, "a woman has eight children with eight different 'husbands,' or men or whatever you call them now."

    Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland and director of the African American Leadership Institute, said Mr. Cosby "hit a nerve, and to some extent, that nerve is generational."

    "His comments were part of the post-Brown discussion about progress," Mr. Walters said. "A lot of older blacks are sensitive about this; they feel that the generation that has come behind them has let them down in terms of their behaviors."

    Mr. Cosby's succinct message "will be front and center for a long time," said Harvard law professor and civil rights attorney Charles Ogletree.

     His words echoed the sentiments of early black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, Mr. Ogletree said.

    "Mr. Cosby was speaking to an audience that could do something about it," he said. "It will lead, hopefully, to a greater sense of responsibility. It could be a call to arms."

    The comedian said black children today do not recognize the plight of those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

    "These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around," he said. "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 spend $200 for 'Hooked on Phonics.'

    "I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is' ... You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth."

    The crowd applauded gently. Mr. Cosby was being honored for his generous financial contributions to historically black colleges. The comments surprised many there, but have become more widely reported in recent days.

    "I think that the context of the situation, the Brown case was interesting," said William Spriggs, executive director of the National Urban League's Institute for Opportunity & Equality. "The key point of the efforts of Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston was that no matter how hard African Americans try, that discrimination was a permanent barrier to further advancement. I think [Mr. Cosby's] comments missed the point of how real those barriers are."

    He added that Mr. Cosby was speaking of a generation that has achieved more than any other black generation.

    "The reality is that since Brown, African Americans have attained unbelievable educational achievements," Mr. Spriggs said. "The current generation is better educated than Bill Cosby's. His comments misplaced the anxiety of the older generation. I don't see these comments generating much more interest."

    Mr. Cosby was embraced by NAACP President Kweisi Mfume as he left the podium. Mr. Mfume later said that he agreed with Mr. Cosby and that, in fact, he, himself, has expressed the same dismay with the black community.

    But Theodore Shaw, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, spoke after Mr. Cosby and said that many troubles faced by blacks are not "self-inflicted."

    Many blacks fear the comments from Mr. Cosby, a known supporter of Democratic causes, will be used to further the assertions of conservatives that many of the problems in the black community are, indeed, self-inflicted.

    "He told the truth," said Imagene B. Stewart, a conservative radio host at WOL-AM. She led her Sunday morning show with the Cosby comments last weekend and she will do so again this week.



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