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Tuesday, June 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
African-American community should listen to 'Cos'

By Oscar Eason and Jr
Special to The Times

AP
Bill Cosby, left, discusses his remarks with PBS interviewer Tavis Smiley.
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I once heard a friend say, "There is nothing in the universe more damaging than the truth told by the right person at the wrong time." Actor and comedian Bill Cosby can attest to that. He sparked controversy last month with statements he made about a segment of the African-American community at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

Howard University, the NAACP and the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund sponsored the event, and it drew a galaxy of civil-rights leaders. "Cos" is being accused of attacking poor and working-class African Americans with criticisms ranging from what they name their kids to how they speak. He is reported to have said, "Lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids — $500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for 'Hooked on Phonics'!"

I see Cosby as a hero, who entered the inner sanctum of today's civil-rights luminaries and loudly, boldly, bluntly sounded an alarm. He demonstrated great courage by appearing at the celebration of Brown's 50th anniversary and delivering such an accurate, though unpopular, message. Many in the audience have always known what the problem is, yet have refrained from using words like "disciplining" and "parenting" in public conversations about the education of African-American youths.

Oscar Eason Jr.

Statistics on the academic records of most African-American children are depressing. Meanwhile, industry is greedily watching and marketing to extravagant purchasing trends of blacks in America, particularly the part of the population Cosby is referring to.

Proper emphasis isn't being placed on the importance of education as a vehicle for transporting the underprivileged to positions of success in a highly technological society.

"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?' " said Cosby. "... 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!"

This issue has been the concern of established African-American community institutions for the past two or three decades. It took on special significance when Cosby put it in context on this occasion: Not being able to communicate verbally is devastating with regard to future career possibilities.

Cosby also talked about the inordinate number of African-American males in jails and prisons, saying, "These are not political criminals, these are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and are outraged, saying, 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"

Cosby's comment, blunt as it was about some misguided protests, should not be viewed as a call for reversing efforts in the African-American community to stop racial profiling and police brutality; but rather, as a wake-up call about a system that too often delivers fatal punishment for minor crimes solely on the basis of ethnicity.

Many will be quick to say of Cosby's comments, "So what?" It's not the first time a notable African American has spoken out like this on these issues: Ward Connerly, Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell are others, to name a few. During the Reagan years, African-American conservatives made this their constant theme.

The difference here is that Cosby is someone who is genuinely "from us." He marched with us, carried the civil-rights banner and paid his dues with time and money. Black conservatives generally are thought to swing too far to the right in assessing and criticizing the black community.

Cosby's statements drew reactions in some quarters of the African-American community that were similar to what President Clinton got from some Southern whites when he apologized to African Americans for slavery. They ignored the message, saying among themselves, "We know this boy is a Bubba, albeit an educated Bubba, so why is he talking like this?"

In both cases, the relevance of what they had to say may have been lost. What Cosby has to say is too important to be ignored. Parents must challenge their children with high expectations from early childhood.

We've known for quite some time now what the real problem is; we only need to "raise the hood and fix it." Admittedly, it will require more African Americans with outstanding community credentials and fearless integrity such as Cosby's to step out and directly address this issue before change is effected. But this could be a beginning.

Oscar Eason Jr. is president of the NAACP State Conference, covering the Alaska, Oregon and Washington area. He is the past national president of Blacks In Government.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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