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|Posted May 22, 2004|
|Bill Cosby, center, with Frank Savage, left, chairman of Howard University, and H. Patrick Swygert, its president, at celebrations on Monday.|
By FELICIA R. LEE
Bill Cosby, known mostly as a genial father figure who contributes to a wide range of black philanthropic causes, found himself immersed in controversy this week. After making inflammatory remarks on Monday about the behavior and values of some poor black people, Mr. Cosby said yesterday that he had made the comments out of concern and because of his belief that fighting racial injustice must also include accepting personal responsibility.
Mr. Cosby spoke yesterday after a week of discussion on the Internet, on talk shows, on radio programs and in newspaper columns about his comments Monday night at a gala at Constitution Hall in Washington commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision. He has been attacked and applauded for saying that "the lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal." He was also reported to have said: "These people are not parenting. They are buying things for their kids $500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for `Hooked on Phonics.' . . . They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English."
Mr. Cosby said yesterday that what was left out of those comments, first reported by The Associated Press and The Washington Post, was that he began his remarks by talking about what he said was a 50 percent high school dropout rate among poor blacks. The National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency, says that in 2000 the dropout rate for blacks was 13.1 percent. Mr. Cosby's publicist, David Brokaw, said it was Mr. Cosby's understanding that the rate was 50 percent in some inner-city schools.
Mr. Cosby's remarks, which also included the observation that not all incarcerated blacks are political prisoners ("people getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake, and then we run out and we are outraged") were meant to frame the complexities of black struggle 50 years after Brown, Mr. Cosby said, when so many legal barriers have fallen.
Some people said Mr. Cosby's comments had simply brought to the surface long-simmering generational and class schisms among blacks. Some applauded him for using sharp language to reiterate a long-running debate among blacks about the direction of the black struggle. Still others said they feared that his remarks would become fodder for racists or conservatives who believe that blacks alone avoid personal responsibility.
"Mr. Cosby was addressing the 50 percent dropout rate that he knows to be true," Mr. Cosby said of himself in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where he was raising money for a program to get teachers into low-income schools. "Was Mr. Cosby taking about all lower-income people? No."
"I am in as much pain as many, many people about these people," he continued. "The 50 percent dropout rate, the seeming acceptance of having children and not making the father responsible and calling him in on it. It's easy to pass these things on like some kind of epidemic."
He said later in the conversation: "A 50 percent dropout rate in 2004 is not all about what people are doing to us. It's about what we are not doing. The Legal Defense Fund and the N.A.A.C.P. can deal on those points of law, but something has to come from the people."
Theodore M. Shaw, the director counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., said yesterday that Mr. Cosby's comments had upset him. But they spoke afterward, he said, and agreed that black inequality needed to be attacked on many fronts, both personal and political.
"I was concerned that people in the media would attempt to drive a wedge between Dr. Cosby and those pursuing issues of systematic racial discrimination," said Mr. Shaw, who spoke to the audience on Monday night after Mr. Cosby's comments, asserting that many problems in black communities were not the result of personal failures.
But the cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson said that Mr. Cosby's comments "betray classist, elitist viewpoints that are rooted in generational warfare." Mr. Dyson, a professor of religious studies and African studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Cosby was "ill-informed on the critical and complex issues that shape people's lives."
Mr. Cosby's comments, he added, "only reinforce suspicions about black humanity."
Addressing that point, Mr. Cosby said yesterday, "The conservative groups are not saying anything that they weren't already saying about us."
|Speaking out publicly is called part of cause of the furor.|
Kweisi Mfume, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said yesterday that he agreed with much of what Mr. Cosby had to say. He said he thought most of the agitation came simply because Mr. Cosby, who has so much credibility among many blacks, said it publicly. Mr. Mfume said he, too, had often said that blacks now face many challenges that are beyond the scope of the law.
He said he disagreed with Mr. Cosby for singling out low-income people as having failed to hold up their end through destructive behavior in the post-segregation era.
Mr. Cosby said yesterday, though, that it is mostly in poor neighborhoods that black children are being felled by bullets and let down by their schools and too many adults. He said he made his comments to inspire people to take back their neighborhoods and express outrage about everything from obscene rap lyrics to negative media images of blacks years after "The Cosby Show" broke new ground.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Arts & Ideas, of Saturday, May 22, 2004.
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