A July 3 article erroneously reported that actor Bill Cosby has admitted fathering a child outside his marriage. (Published 7/4/04)
As Dr. Cliff Huxtable, TV's quintessential sitcom dad, Bill Cosby offered gentle, homespun advice to his young family each week. But in real life, Cosby lately has been delivering a much harsher message: African Americans, particularly the young, have only themselves to blame for a variety of social ills.
For the second time in six weeks, Cosby attracted wide media attention with public criticism of black youngsters. Cosby was cheered on Thursday when he told a group of black activists in Chicago that young African Americans are the "dirty laundry" that many would prefer he not criticize despite their poor grammar, foul language and rude manners.
"Let me tell you something," Cosby, one of America's most admired men, told the group. "Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other [the N-word] as they're walking up and down the street. 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, made during an appearance at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition's annual conference, ratcheted up a soul-searching debate among African Americans that began in mid-May when Cosby leveled similar criticism at blacks during an appearance in Washington. Those comments -- criticizing "the lower economic people" -- gained attention because it is rare for a celebrity of Cosby's stature to level such unblinking criticism of class and race. The discussion has been ricocheting around black radio talk shows and in newspaper and online columns since.
Several African American leaders said yesterday they mostly agreed with Cosby's message of personal responsibility, but opinion was more volatile among the young people at whom Cosby leveled his comments.
"It's the same thing I've been saying since 1976," said Jesse L. Jackson, the president of the Rainbow/PUSH group, who was at Cosby's side on Thursday. He criticized rap-music artists who liberally use derogatory terms for blacks and women, as well as black and white listeners who blithely repeat the words. "It's unacceptable," Jackson said.
Al Sharpton, who met with Cosby two weeks ago, said he had a "mixed reaction" to the actor-comedian's comments. "I agree that we have to do something about the internal contradiction of our community," said Sharpton, who ran against Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee, in the presidential primaries. "But we also must be careful not to relieve the general community of what they've done to our community."
Cosby, 66, seemed to disagree in his remarks on Thursday, saying that blacks cannot simply blame whites for problems such as high rates of teen pregnancy and school dropout. "For me there is a time . . . when we have to turn the mirror around," he said. "Because for me it's almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us. And it keeps a person frozen in their seat. It keeps you frozen in your hole you're sitting in."
In an interview yesterday, Cosby said he is speaking out because dropout, illiteracy and teen pregnancy rates are at "epidemic" levels among less-affluent African Americans. "You can't get me to soften my message," he said. "If I had said [it] nicely, then people wouldn't have listened."
His remarks at DAR Constitution Hall in May, Cosby said in another interview recently, came after riding in a cab in the District and hearing Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey speaking on the radio about the need for parents to take responsibility for their children.
Lisa Locke, 21, a 2003 graduate of Drexel University who was raised by a single mother in Southeast Washington, reflected some of the uneasiness that has characterized the reaction to Cosby since he made his original comments. "The conditions that Bill Cosby speaks about are brutal, and the solution has to be forceful," Locke said, "but the issue I have with Cosby is with him generalizing."
Working out at midmorning at a club in Greenbelt yesterday, Kevin Hankton, a 39-year-old federal worker from Upper Marlboro, said he thought Cosby was well intentioned but would do more harm than good. "I worked hard to pull myself up by the bootstraps . . . but a lot of our people are still in the trenches trying to make it," he said. Cosby "needs to get off his soapbox and get back to his TV shows. When he was Dr. Huxtable on 'The Cosby Show,' he was the role model that motivated me. He needs to get back to those positive messages."
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons praised Cosby as "a great American" but said that "pointing the finger may not be helpful -- we still have more struggle as a society and more work to do" to reform it. He rejected the notion that hip-hop music has had a coarsening effect, saying it "is the soundtrack that reflects the struggle" of young people today.
Cosby may be oversimplifying a problem that defies easy solution, said Mario Beatty, a history professor at Bowie State University. "We have to confront these social problems, but the solution is not as simple as having someone change their behavior," he said. ". . . One has to clearly understand the causes of the problem."
Yet the Rev. James E. Sturdivant, pastor of Faith United Ministry on Capitol Hill, noted with satisfaction that Cosby and Jackson are speaking out about family and personal responsibility after both men faced personal scandals, admitting in recent years that they fathered children outside of their marriages. Sturdivant said, "The book of Ezekiel talks about a man not understanding what another is going through until they have experienced that same trial."
Staff writer Darryl Fears contributed to this report.