In 1988, Bill Cosby elevated himself from black middle-class ambassador to bona fide Race Man. And he did it the old-fashioned way—with cold cash. That year, the entertainer donated a mind-numbing $20 million to his daughter's historically black alma mater, Spelman College. Cosby's largesse, toward the end of the greed-and-grab '80s, occasioned much soul-searching among the black bourgeois. But his philanthropy and political activism also have had another effect—they've made him virtually untouchable.
Over the past two months, Cosby has used his legendary wit to attack African-Americans with a stream of invective that normally would have black columnists spilling ink by the gallon and the NAACP calling for boycotts and pickets. Ironically, it was at the NAACP's 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Edin late May that honored guest Cosby relentlessly attacked poor and working-class African-Americans. "Ladies and gentlemen, the lower-economic people are not holding up their end in this deal," he told a shocked audience. "These people are not parenting. They are buying things for their kids—$500 sneakers for what?"
And then: "They're standing on the corner, and they can't speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't?' 'Where you is?' . . . And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk. . . . 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!"
The Coz reportedly lampooned blacks for giving their kids weird names like Ali and Shaniqua and finished up by launching a parting barrage at the prisoners-rights movement. "These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola," the press reported him saying. "People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake, and then we run out, and we are outraged, [saying] 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"
Not only couldn't a white person get away with this diatribe, but there's not a black person on the planet who could, either. Well, except maybe for one. Cosby's shtick has been met with either tepid criticism or tacit approval.
"Cosby has done some legitimate philanthropic good," says William Jelani Cobb, a columnist for africana.com and an assistant professor of history at Spelman. "So people generally perceive criticizing him as a slap in the face, given the contributions he's made. He's supposed to have an exemption because he's giving money."
Beyond his philanthropy, Cosby has a long history of political activism. He's a longtime friend of Randall Robinson, founder of the pro-Africa lobbying group TransAfrica Forum. During the '80s, Cosby joined with Arthur Ashe, Harry Belafonte and Muhammad Ali to protest apartheid in South Africa. Further, Cosby has repeatedly opened his checkbook for progressive black political candidates including Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson Jr. In 1990, Cosby donated to Harvey Gantt's Senate campaign to unseat the hated Jesse Helms in North Carolina. This was the same campaign in which native son Michael Jordan, a Nike pitchman, refused to back the African-American Gantt, coldly noting that "Republicans buy shoes, too."
Cosby's historic willingness to duke it out for progressive causes and to put his money where his mouth is has made him a virtually unique figure among black celebrities. It's also given him a free pass to trade in the sort of barbs Trent Lott would like to get away with. Black leadership is loath to criticize Cosby—even when he's talking out his ass.
For all their mean-spiritedness and elitism, Cosby's rantings have suffered from his unwillingness to allow facts and stats to get in the way of a good dig. "At any time, you can pull stuff out the newspaper that sounds horrible, of any race and any people," says Mike Males, a senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and frequent OC Weekly contributor. "I looked at all these measures that he's talking about, and I saw that none of them were any worse than they were in the past. In fact, many are better."
Males should know. After hearing Cosby grumble that the young were trampling over the work of the old, he went and crunched some numbers and came up with some shockers:
In 1970, among black females between 15 and 17 years old, there were 72 pregnancies per 1,000. In 2002, there were 30.9 per 1,000.
In 1970, the dropout rate was 28 percent among African-Americans. In 2001, it was 11 percent.
In 1970, 15 percent of African-Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 went to college. Today, that number stands at 31 percent.
Cosby took particular glee in lampooning black criminality. But his bit about black kids stealing pound cake stands in direct contrast to a decade-long decline in crime rates across the board. "The African-American numbers came down with everyone else's. It wasn't a race-specific trend," says Jeffrey Butts, director of the Program on Youth Justice at the Urban Institute. "In terms of violent crimes, those types of crime are down to the level where we were in the late 1960s, which is very low. It does vary by the race of the victim—you are still more likely to be victimized in certain neighborhoods, where certain people live. But even those most dangerous neighborhoods are safer than they were in 1994."
Butts is skeptical that Cosby's appeal to personal responsibility will have much effect, if only because it's highly selective—mere weeks before Cosby launched his barrage against the black poor, he was spotted sitting in the courtroom in support of Martha Stewart. "Of course people's behavior is something they choose, but it would be unfair to think about this only in reference to street crime," says Butts. "If I say 'crime,' most people think of someone sticking a gun in their face. But they should also think Ken Lay, Martha Stewart, Halliburton. But no one preaches to them about personal responsibility."
Given the hard stats on crime, one wonders why Cosby would choose now, with black youth in a better place than their forebears, to launch a broadside. This isn't exactly 1994 or 1964. Cosby's office referred a call for a comment to a prepared statement, which basically said the media was distorting his remarks, that he never meant to criticize poor black people.
Whatever his intent, Cosby is showing his age. "It's part of a general pessimism that people have toward young people," says Cobb. "This idea that black people 35 and under have not done enough to take advantage of the opportunities that the earlier generation made available is ultimately shortsighted, but it's also no different than any other generation."
In his winter, Cosby is proving no more insightful than your crotchety old uncle, standing on the corner, ranting to no one in particular, "Damn kids!" Of course, no one in his or her right mind would hand your uncle a bullhorn.
Bill Cosby "brings his brand of wry humor and social insight" to the Orange County Fair Concert Series at Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 740-2000; ocfair.com. Thurs., July 22, 8 P.M. $20-$57.50.
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