Did Cosby Cross the Line?
By Jabari Asim
Monday, May 24, 2004; 10:06 AM
Bill Cosby's remarks last week at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education initially made me think of Mercer Ellington.
I interviewed Ellington, bandleader and son of America's greatest composer, in February 1995, when he was 76. He was blunt and outspoken, qualities he attributed to a philosophy he said he'd borrowed from Lena Horne. "When you get this old, you don't give a damn," he told me. "You say what you think and feel." Mercer, who died five months later, proceeded to give me an earful on everything from the numerous shortcomings of young jazz musicians to America's failure to give the Duke his due.
Cosby, who will be 67 in July, has apparently reached an age where he, too, is quite comfortable sharing what's on his mind. The genial Jell-O spokesman's candor was on full display at Washington's DAR Constitution Hall, where various African-American notables had gathered to laud him, his wife Camille and others for honoring the legacy of Brown.
The Washington Post reported that Cosby unleashed a diatribe against "the lower economic people" who, in his estimation, "are not holding up their end in this deal." He said their transgressions included incompetent parenting, poor financial management and failure to master the basics of English. According to Cos, "Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. ... You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!"
And, in comments sure to warm the hearts of lawful citizens everywhere, he also aimed his wit at petty criminals: "These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, (saying) 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"
The Post described the audience's response as a mixture of "astonishment, laughter and applause," which was followed by appearances at the podium from NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert and NAACP Legal Defense Fund head Theodore Shaw, none of whom seemed to be amused in the slightest.
Cosby's remarks later made me think of comedian Dick Gregory who, as it turns out, was on hand to present Cosby with his commemorative medal. Unlike his old friend, Gregory's comic style has long been associated with blistering social criticism.
I remember being in the audience when Gregory appeared on campus during my college days. My pals and I guffawed while he mercilessly lampooned the whites in attendance, who laughed good-naturedly in response. But we grew increasingly uncomfortable as Gregory gradually shifted his focus to blacks. He poked fun at African-Americans who constantly complained about white racism while smoking, eating harmful foods and engaging in other forms self-destructive behavior. Later my friends and I were more inclined to express our dismay at Gregory's willingness to "call us out" in front of white folks than to acknowledge an element of truth in his comments.
That same element can be found in Cosby's remarks. It is true that some blacks continue to engage in conduct that contradicts and undermines the aims of the civil rights movement. He has every right to take them to task. It is far less amusing that Cosby, a multimillionaire, chose to criticize "the lower economic people" when evidence of the habits he condemned -- misplaced priorities, negligent child-rearing, deteriorating morality -- can be found at every level of American society. Why single out poor people, who are least able to defend themselves?
You needn't be poor, of course, to wonder why it's possible to be shot in the head for stealing Coca-Cola or pound cake when people who steal much more (Tyco, anyone? Enron?) get away with a slap on the wrist or less. The few poor people present when Cosby spoke were probably too busy carrying trays and taking orders to pay much attention to his remarks. If he had been able to talk with any of them later, say at the bus stop or while they walked to their second job, he'd find that many "lower economic people" are calling for more policing, not less. They just want unequal law enforcement replaced with intelligent, community-oriented and compassionate applications of justice -- the very goal to which the champions of Brown v. Board dedicated their talent and lives.
© 2004 washingtonpost.com
_____Bill Cosby on Civil Rights_____
Audio: The following are edited excerpts from Bill Cosby's speech on Monday, May 17, 2004, at the NAACP's gala to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision.