Bill Cosby defended his controversial critique of African American life, telling a roomful of educators and parents in the District yesterday that while systemic racism has presented barriers to progress, good parenting is the key to a child's future.
Cosby, whose recent scathing observations of the parenting skills and personal values of low-income black people have earned him criticism and praise, tackled the subject head-on at the Washington Convention Center during a forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
During a two-hour panel session, Cosby criticized parents who allow their children to be "managed with a cell phone" and who don't take an interest in the children's schoolwork. Racism continues to exist, he said, but "there is nothing that will defeat parenting." He added: "My call is for more, tighter reins. Know what your children are doing."
Cosby's comments were widely applauded during the forum, which focused on the state of public education for African Americans. The panel discussion came on the opening day of the foundation's week-long annual legislative conference.
The entertainer was one of seven on a panel that included educators, authors and academics. Judging by the reaction of the standing-room-only crowd of a few hundred in a conference room, though, it was clear whom educators and reporters had come to see.
"When he shoots his verbal arrows, he hits you in the heart, and he knows that we think with our heart," said George C. Fraser, chairman and chief executive of Cleveland-based communications firm FraserNet, who sat in the audience.
The panel included Deborah Jewell-Sherman, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools; Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project; and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund.
It was in the District, at a Constitution Hall gala in May to mark the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, that Cosby first sounded off about low-income blacks. "They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English," he said then. "I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is' . . . And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk."
In July, at a Rainbow/PUSH Coalition gathering in Chicago, Cosby said young blacks were the "dirty laundry" that many prefer he not criticize.
Cosby's remarks sparked a debate in the black community. Some criticized Cosby for fueling negative racial stereotypes and giving credence to conservative beliefs that the problems facing African Americans are self-imposed. But others applauded him for talking about the importance of personal responsibility, and still others found themselves split on how they viewed his message.
Yesterday, Cosby told his critics, "Come at me all you want." To those who criticized him for blaming the victim by preaching personal responsibility, he said: "I know a victim when I see one. And so did Christ. And so does God know victims. And so do we all recognize victims. But some victims you can look at and say, 'Get up.' " Most of his comments were greeted with laughter or applause and nods and shouts of approval.
He said the lives of many poor black children are so fraught with peril and anger that he wanted to see more psychiatrists and psychologists in schools to deal with students' emotional problems.
Low-income black students should be taught algebra and calculus as early as kindergarten, as students are in Japan, he said.
At one point, he wondered aloud why it was Muslims -- not Christians -- who were unafraid to go into rough neighborhoods to try to keep youths out of trouble. He said that he was questioning the efforts of the black Christian community to "take the neighborhood back." He said, "We haven't made Jesus smile."
Throughout the discussion, Cosby was at times playful, at times serious. He joked with another panelist, encouraging author Jawanza Kunjufu to elaborate on his point by invoking the sitcom dad persona of Dr. Cliff Huxtable. But he also described the problems facing African Americans as a life-and-death struggle that needs to be won.
"You've got funerals," he said. "How long is it going to take before you make this transformation? Children skipping double-dutch [clapping his hands once to mimic a gunshot]. Dead. And we cry at the child's funeral. Twenty-six-year-old's been shot. By mistake, can it be? . . . Ladies and gentlemen, this has to stop. These things are getting clearer and clearer and clearer."