Bill Cosby’s parenting initiative falls short of scapegoating

By Tomi Morris Johnson    ©2004 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.

Commentary: Parenting advice based on ethical principals has existed from the earliest of times. Racism, injustice and poverty, however, are powerful influences that can obliterate best intentions and limit opportunities for all but the privileged. 

November 18, 2004, Atlanta, GA…You probably have heard it all before - that black children are going to hell in a hand basket, that 58% of youth admitted to state adult prison are African American, and that the stupor black students find themselves in while using drugs and listening to rap music is eradicating the future of Black America. Yet, according to Dr. Bill Cosby, there still is hope for black youth if parents take more responsibility for their human legacies.

Cosby, a 67-year old doctoral funny man known for his television series’ Fat Albert and The Cosby Show and the film Lost, Stolen or Strayed, mixed humor with straight talk in Frederick Douglass High School’s gymnasium before a standing room only crowd of parents and mentoring groups. Security was tight, with a helicopter circling outside and dozens of uniformed and plain-clothes police all over the place.

(Photo courtesy Bill Cosby)

A product of Philadelphia projects, William Henry Cosby, Jr. began his educational career as a failing dropout. He admits to being a poor student because he focused his energy on sports. Repeating the 10th grade, he exited high school and after joining the Navy earned his high school diploma. Discharged in 1961, he attended Temple University but dropped out his sophomore year to pursue a comedy career. Later, he earned his BA in Radio/Television/Film from Temple, a Masters degree, and PhD in Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amhurst. Today, Cosby’s net worth is estimated at $500 million. He and wife Camille have four daughters. Only son Ennis was murdered in 1997.

Bill Cosby is a survivor who has made it and sees no room for excuses.

Cosby’s tour, an initiative to help black youth, rolled into Atlanta after several black leaders criticized the “Cos” for previous statements he made which slammed black parent’s buying habits.  The educational entourage appearing onstage with Cosby included students, principals, and detention supervisors.  Platform guests made statements ranging from how we treat each other to the definition of “acting black”.

One speaker said students should not connote “acting black” with dropped pants, provocative language, and poor school performance. “Some of our most talented students won’t carry books because they are afraid they’ll be teased for ‘acting white’. Academic excellent is consistent with being black and is something we should want to celebrate. It’s not a true statement that black parents don’t care about education, but we must voice and demonstrate it.”

Wearing a hoody and a scowl, Dr. Bill Cosby offered free parenting advice to 3,500 people atFrederick Douglass High School in Atlanta

Cosby is adamantly helping black youth by purporting to educate parents. “The public school system is not in the business of parenting. The teacher cannot touch your child or impose his or her will.  Teachers are underpaid, and they cry in the daytime because they see children who haven’t eaten, used soap, or been hugged.”

Asked about his bluntness, Cosby responded, “You’re damn right…how can some of you call yourself Christians when you’ve done what you’ve done in raising your child? You’re giving God a hernia asking him to help you out,” he remarked.

Dr. Cosby’s verbose image of playful and robust elementary school children turning into medicated, lackluster, teary-eyed victims by the end of high school presented a chilling warning.  “Our children are trying to tell us something, and we are not listening,” Cosby said.  “And it’s not all the white man’s fault.”

Cosby said an alarming number of children are not being tucked into bed at night because their fathers are behind bars. A great storyteller, he recounted asking a young boy, “When was the last time you saw your father?” “In court,” the child said. “And what did he say to you?” “Nothing.” Cosby said that children have pain, but few tears. Tears have been replaced by profanity, the type that embarrasses old people.

At home, Cosby said kids are seeing and hearing sex, crack heads, fighting, arguing and cursing and cannot do anything about it.  “They are being bribed by their mama’s boyfriends who give them change from $20 to go buy a carton of cigarettes…I’m troubled by people who want you to stay a sad victim because they’re making money off you being a victim. You’re a worse victim if you don’t get up and move,” Cosby continued.

“Victims are people who can’t help themselves.”

                                                    Bill Cosby

Amidst criticism from critics who say he is blaming the victim, Cosby said his mission is to help not harass, and in the long run to resuscitate the African American community. Some consider “blaming victims” scapegoating, a system of manipulation by the powerful which increases trepidation, avoids serious analysis of problems, and directs loathing toward powerless minority groups. 

Cosby’s self-help message seems uncomplicated, however, it’s easier for parents to be first-rate child stewards when they have jobs and are not living in poverty.  According to a report issued by the government and reported by Reuters in August 2004, “some 1.3 million Americans slid into poverty in 2003 as the ranks of the poor swelled to 35.9 million, with children and blacks worse off than most… The poverty line is set at an annual income of $9,573 or less for an individual, or $18,660 for a family of four with two children. Under that measure, a family would spend about a third of its income on food.”

“…we have been, by our oppressors, despoiled of our purity, and corrupted in our native characteristics, so that we have inherited their vices, and but few of their virtues, leaving us in character, really a broken people.”

                                                                 Martin Robinson Delaney, 1812-1885

Those leaves little cash for the poor to purchase $500 designer sneakers, which Cosby suggested was despicable in a previous speech, or save for college. CNN Money reported that the average tuition for undergrads attending four-year public universities jumped 10.5 percent this year. The average price of attendance, including room, board and fees, is $11,354. The average tuition at a four-year private college is $27,516.

And not too many grandparents can help black kids out when it comes to financing college. According to Medical News Today, the median net worth of older white households ($205,000) was five times larger than for older black households ($41,000).

“If we have any courage, we'll fight for a just society instead of bash our powerless neighbour.”

Cosby told parents to participate more in the PTA, insist children do four hours of homework each night, and use the X Box as an example of what can be invented with an aptitude in algebra.

According to a study conducted by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, “the most important reason for educational inequality between Blacks and Whites is socioeconomic. Differences in family background consistently account for about one third of the test score gap and for almost all of the inequality in rates of college entry and graduation among Black and White high school graduates.”

“Unfortunately, the cumulative disadvantage of minority youth will continue to spiral as states continue to pass more punitive laws allowing youth to be charged as adults and, therefore, subject to adult sanctions such as prison and the death penalty.”

Eileen Poe-Yamagata

Cosby’s “what not to do” list of parenting skills included not letting just anybody come into your house.


Parenting advice based on ethical principals has been with us from the earliest of times. Proverbs 22:6 teaches “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Parents set examples, and children tend to become like their parents. A child skilled in wisdom and discipline will become a decent adult if not prevented by outside influences. Racism, injustice and poverty, however, are powerful pressures that can obliterate opportunities for all but the privileged few.

Racial discrimination still exists, yet Cosby suggested parents and students look back at history for lessons in black achievement. “Beat back bigots with good grades. Frederick Douglass bartered for his education. You won your quest against Lester Maddox. How did you beat him back? It’s not too late.”

“Circumstances can surely limit what even the most responsible family can achieve, but no family is really every excused from the responsibility of imaginatively fighting difficult circumstances.”

                                                                            Shelby Steele, Educating Black Students


When asked why Cosby was using the same ‘ole rhetoric while the plight of black youth seems to be worsening, Cosby’s publicist Joel Brokaw from the Los Angeles-based Brokaw Company said, “We’re trying hard to change all that.” When asked could Cosby help a poor person obtain a teaching certificate, Brokaw responded, “That’s what the Bill Cosby Foundation is for.” The Brokaw Company has been representing Cosby for 20 years.

SIDEBAR: Here are some parenting tips from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Guide to African American Parents:

  • Inspire hope
  • Make plans for emergencies
  • Be still and listen
  • Develop self-esteem
  • Comfort
  • Monitor television watching
  • Give information that is age appropriate
  • Share your faith
  • Help your child feel safe
  • Identify and avoid stress

The information in this article is the opinion of the author and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous.