With the sponsorship of the Chicago school board, the actor and comedian Bill Cosby brought his sometimes-controversial message about parental responsibility to nearly 10,000 parents here on Dec. 6, urging them to take charge of their households.
“This is what we need to do at home,” said Mr. Cosby, one of America’s best-known celebrities. “First, we need to teach love. Love is not buying the child whatever the child wants.”
Mr. Cosby also 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 overwhelmingly African-American audience attending the district’s fourth annual “Power of Parents” conference was responsive to Mr. Cosby, often applauding his remarks or nodding their heads. 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.
Mr. Cosby cracked jokes a couple of times, but the tone of his speech was mostly serious. He seemed to address the African-American community in particular, relaying 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’s 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.”
Mr. Cosby has been giving talks in cities across the nation telling African-Americans why he believes they need to improve their parenting, and otherwise take greater responsibility for the problems he sees afflicting too many black youths. He began with a speech on May 17, 2004—given in Washington to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education—that startled and upset some observers with its blunt language.
In that address, 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.
“Brown v. Board of Education—these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education, and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English,” he said in 2004, according to a transcript of the speech. “These people are not funny anymore. … They’re faking, and they’re dragging me way down because the state, the city, and all these people have to pick up the tab on them because they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education.”
Such comments drew criticism and touched off a fresh round of debate on long-standing issues concerning race and social ills. Michael Eric Dyson, a professor in the humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and a prominent black intellectual, published a book in 2005 critiquing Mr. Cosby’s May 2004 speech.
In the book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, Mr. Dyson criticizes Mr. Cosby as downplaying economic, social, political, and other structural issues that affect low-income black parents, such as welfare reform, the export of jobs to other countries, and an ongoing racial stigma.
Listen to Teacher Magazine‘s November audio interview with Bill Cosby in which he defends comments he made at a speech in California. Cosby’s comments were criticized by some media outlets as an affront to teachers and parents.
Mr. Cosby’s beliefs, he writes, are typically espoused by the “Afristocracy,” who Mr. Dyson says are “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 black people ignore a lack of personal responsibility that pervades their own social and economic class as well.
Mr. Cosby seemed to address such critics in his speech to Chicago parents.
Some people, he told them, say “Bill Cosby is picking on the poor.” But he added: “In order to tell you how to get out of poverty, I have to tell you what you’re doing wrong.”