Bill Cosby is one of the most influential African-American entertainers in the world. His comedic career on stage and screen has spanned more than 40 years. His popular situation comedy, "The Cosby Show," revolutionized American television in the 1980s, by featuring an African-American family that was stable, prosperous, and the antithesis of just about every negative stereotype there is about black people in America. Mr. Cosby has given generously to the African-American community, endowing scholarships and after-school educational programs. It's fair to say that Bill Cosby is revered by many African-Americans and that may be why he felt he could tell them some things recently that they may not have wanted to hear.
Bill Cosby made his comments at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's historic "Brown vs. Board of Education" decision. That ruling effectively outlawed school segregation, opening an educational door that had been closed to African-Americans for generations. Before an audience of some of the nation's most influential black leaders, Bill Cosby criticized poor African-Americans who, he said insist on using improper English and fail to take advantage of the civil rights reforms black Americans fought so hard for in 1960s. Here are some excerpts from a somewhat muffled recording of the evening.
"I can't even talk the way these people talk," he said. "'Why you ain't where you is, blah, blah.' Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads! You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth! It's time for you to not accept this language that these people are speaking which will take them nowhere. What the hell good is Brown vs. the Board of Education if nobody wants it?"
Mr. Cosby also criticized African-American leaders who insist that black men arrested for committing crimes are "political prisoners," and he said the high school drop-out rate for black students, which he exaggerated to fifty percent, was deplorable. The drop-out rate among African-Americans is actually closer 13 percent, but that still makes it one of the highest in the nation, among all the various ethnic groups.
"One of the criticisms was that when he threw out statistics in his comments, they had little basis in reality," said Alexis Scott, publisher of the Atlanta Daily World, the country's oldest daily black newspaper. She says in the days following Mr. Cosby's speech, her paper's website was inundated with comments from readers. As she just noted, some of them were critical, but she says many more were positive.
"People have weighed in in large numbers," said Ms. Scott. "And I would say that the majority of the people are saying, 'Amen, Brother Cosby.'"
Alexis Scott says many readers felt Bill Cosby had earned the right to criticize the black community, because of everything he's done for it. She says many were struck by his insistence that African-Americans themselves need to do something about the self-defeating behavior he described. But Ms. Scott also says some readers thought the comments were insensitive and elitist, and worried that they could be taken out of context by people who oppose social welfare programs.
"That was one of the primary opinions that was expressed, that it could taken and used in a negative way to continue to discriminate against poor people and to generate sympathy for cutting off support and other public policies that help poor people get a leg up," she said.
In fact, Bill Cosby's comments have been praised by many white conservative commentators. But so far, no one has publicly referred to Mr. Cosby's comments when calling for funding cuts, and Bill Cosby is sticking to what he said. He told one reporter that his only mistake was that he didn't preface his comments with a nod to the thousands of poor African-Americans who do work hard at getting an education.