At the invitation of the Chicago school board, the actor and comedian Bill Cosby shared his sometimes-controversial message about responsibility with some 9,000 parents here last week, urging them to take charge of their households.
The Dec. 6 address, to an overwhelmingly African-American audience at the district’s fourth annual “Power of Parents” conference, was the latest in a series of speeches Mr. Cosby has delivered since 2004 urging the black community to step up and tackle the problems of its young people, including low student-achievement levels, violence, and what he views as objectionable speech and disrespectful behavior.
He began with a May 17, 2004, speech in Washington—at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education—that startled and upset some observers with its blunt language and touched off a fresh debate over long-standing issues concerning race and social ills.
At that time, Mr. Cosby criticized black youths who failed to use standard English and whose indifference to education, he said, had consequences for the rest of society.
Rufus Williams, the president of the Chicago board of education since July, said in an interview that he invited the entertainer to the nation’s third-largest school district because he understood Mr. Cosby’s message to be one of “empowerment, help, and taking responsibility for oneself.”
When asked whether Mr. Cosby might put off some parents because his speeches don’t discuss the institutionalized racism that others have said hinders black Americans, Mr. Williams, who is the founder and president of a company that provides business and financial management to athletes and entertainers, said he didn’t think so.
“When you talk about self-empowerment,” Mr. Williams said, “you talk about what you can do, not the things that hold you back.”
Listen to a clip of Bill Cosby explaining the
intention of his remarks to teachers. (3:09):
Over the past 2½ years, Mr. Cosby, who has a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, has spoken in communities across the country. In October, when he appeared at a church in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles at an “Education Is a Civil Right” conference, he chided teachers for not making clear to students why they should learn academic material.
Michael Eric Dyson, a prominent black intellectual who is a professor in the humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, published a book last year critiquing Mr. Cosby’s May 2004 speech, called Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?
In the book, he criticizes the entertainer as downplaying the economic, social, political, and other structural factors that affect low-income black parents, including welfare reform, the export of jobs to other countries, and an ongoing racial stigma.
Mr. Cosby’s beliefs, he writes, are typical of those espoused by the “Afristocracy,” which Mr. Dyson describes as “upper-middle-class blacks and the black elite who rain down fire and brimstone upon poor blacks for their deviance and pathology.” Mr. Dyson contends that such African-Americans ignore a lack of personal responsibility that is present in their own social and economic class as well.
‘Picking on Poor’?
In his remarks to the Chicago parents, Mr. Cosby, who played the wise father Dr. Cliff Huxtable on the television program “The Cosby Show,” addressed such critics, acknowledging that some people say that “Bill Cosby is picking on the poor.”
He added: “In order to tell you how to get out of poverty, I have to tell you what you’re doing wrong.”
Mr. Cosby recalled how in the past, illiterate parents who “chopped cotton” were able to inspire their children to go to college because they knew how important an education was. There is no excuse for today’s parents not to instill a similar confidence in their children, he argued.
“You’ve got to build the confidence in your child in your home. If it’s possible to teach a child that he can take six bullets,” he said, “I think it’s possible to teach him to take algebra.”
“This is what we need to do at home,” said Mr. Cosby. “First, we need to teach love. Love is not buying the child whatever the child wants.”
Also, he said, “as a parent, you have to understand, I know what I’m doing and I’m in charge. You don’t have to smack the kid. You don’t have to punch the child.”
The audience was responsive to Mr. Cosby, often applauding his remarks or nodding. About 49 percent of Chicago’s 421,000 public school students are African-American, and 38 percent are Latino. Eighty-six percent of the district’s students come from low-income families.
A number of black parents said after the speech that Mr. Cosby’s comments were on target.
“He said some things that encouraged me—we need to love our kids and not beat them. We need to stand up and be the parent in our homes,” said Ollie Powell, who has a 17-year-old daughter attending Chicago’s South Shore High School and three grandchildren in elementary school.
Of her three older children, she said, only one, who works in a car factory, has a high school diploma. A second son, who is working on his General Educational Development certificate, is a caterer. A third son is in jail.
Ms. Powell said she realizes now she should have done more to support the education of her older children, and she’s trying to remedy that with her daughter and grandchildren. Attending the parent-involvement conference is one example of how she’s trying to get more involved, she said.
James and Coretta J. Pruitt, who have six children in prekindergarten through 5th grade in Chicago public schools, said they see Mr. Cosby as “telling people the truth.”
“I’m from the old-school approach,” said Mr. Pruitt, who runs his own business as an information-technology consultant. “We do spank our kids when they get out of line. But we do give them rewards.”
His wife, a real estate agent, said Mr. Cosby is right in saying African-Americans don’t look out for each other’s children as they once did. She recalled that when she was a girl and was out in the street while she was supposed to be “on the porch,” a neighbor would call her mother to report where she was.
“That whole looking out for another is not where it used to be,” Ms. Pruitt said. “We can get back to that.”
At least one Chicago resident who works with black youths, Tio M. Hardiman, the director of mediation services for the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, initially wasn’t happy that Mr. Cosby was invited to speak in Chicago. He believes the actor showed he was out of touch with black youths in his early criticisms of their language.
“We respect Bill Cosby as an entertainer, but it’s not incumbent on him to be the person who dictates how African-Americans communicate,” he said in an interview before Mr. Cosby’s visit.
Mr. Hardiman didn’t attend Mr. Cosby’s speech to parents or a second speech he gave that evening especially for men and boys. But Mr. Hardiman said he talked with several people who had heard one of the speeches, and he believes Mr. Cosby has fine-tuned his message for the better.
Lavon Tims, who as a “violence interrupter” for CeaseFire Chicago goes into neighborhoods and tries to stop people from shooting each other, said he felt Mr. Cosby was generally on target in his speech for the male audience, which Mr. Tims attended.
He said Mr. Cosby was right to say that African-Americans downgrade themselves in some of the “dirty comedy,” movies, and music they produce and listen to. It’s a way for some people to make a living, but that doesn’t make it right, Mr. Tims said.
Mr. Tims, who has eight children in Chicago public schools, said that while he’d heard that Mr. Cosby had previously criticized the nonstandard English of black youths, he didn’t touch on that issue in his evening speech.
“I’ve heard about his controversies,” Mr. Tims said. “Listening to him [for the first time], it’s not all that controversial, because the points he made are valid points.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as At Behest of Chicago Schools, Cosby Lectures Parents