Families & the Community

At Behest of Chicago Schools, Cosby Lectures Parents

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 12, 2006 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Bill Cosby urges Chicago parents to be "in charge" and instill confidence in their children in a Dec. 6 speech at the district's annual parent-involvement conference.

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.

‘Taking Responsibility’

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.”

Audience members listen to Bill Cosby urging the black community to tackle the problems of its young people at the Chicago district's fourth annual "Power of Parents" conference, last week.

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.

‘The Truth’

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


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Families & the Community Opinion A New Group Battling for Freedom of Thought in Education
Rick Hess speaks with the founder of a new network of teachers and parents who support freedom of thought and expression in education.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Families & the Community 'I Need You to Wear a Mask to Protect My Child.' A Mom Fights for Vulnerable Students
Some parents see a tension between their medically vulnerable children's safety and their educational needs during the pandemic.
8 min read
Julia Longoria has joined a federal lawsuit by Disability Rights Texas against Texas Governor Greg Abbott over his ban on mask mandates in public schools. Longoria argues that the executive order prevents her child, Juliana, who is medically at-risk, from being able to attend school safely. Juliana Ramirez, 8, a third grader at James Bonham Academy in San Antonio, Texas, has ADHD and severe asthma which puts her at risk of complications from COVID-19.
Julia Longoria has joined a federal lawsuit by Disability Rights Texas against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his ban on mask mandates in public schools. Longoria argues that the executive order prevents her child, Juliana, 8, who is medically at risk, from being able to attend school safely.
Julia Robinson for Education Week
Families & the Community Reported Essay Pandemic Parents Are More Engaged. How Can Schools Keep It Going?
Families have a better sense of what their child is learning, but schools will have to make some structural shifts to build on what they started.
6 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Families & the Community Opinion How to Preserve the Good Parts of Pandemic Schooling
Yes, there have been a few silver linings for student well-being in the pandemic. Let’s not lose them now, write two researchers.
Laura Clary & Tamar Mendelson
4 min read
A student and teacher communicate through a screen.
iStock/Getty