Civil rights activists and scholars are softening their criticism of Bill Cosby’s message to black Americans to stop blaming racism for their problems and engage in more personal responsibility.
While black leaders still differ on the role institutional racism plays in the social ills of blacks, Mr. Cosby’s new book, “Come On, People” is not receiving the same backlash its author did when he first publicly spoke out on the matter in 2004.
“Dr. Cosby has never tried to be the expert on this, but really the flamethrower, by choice,” said Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who criticized the Cosby speeches from three years ago as inflammatory.
He praised the book and Harvard colleague Alvin Poussaint, Mr. Cosby’s longtime friend and co-author, for clarifying and focusing their message, calling it an “important step forward” in dealing with black social problems.
“When [Mr. Cosby] throws those flames, we have to respond to it and acknowledge where he is right but also be prepared to give an alternative perspective where we think he is over the top,” Mr. Ogletree said. “It has provoked even more dialogue about the issue of the balance between what we have to do for ourselves and what government has to do for us, and I think that balance is still in debate in a great sense.”
Other prominent black Americans, while they still bristle at Mr. Cosby’s calls for blacks to stop blaming whites, acknowledge that both personal responsibility and social justice are needed.
“One does not necessarily conflict with the other,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said when asked by The Washington Times about the Cosby book this week at a Capitol Hill hearing.
“Personal responsibility is necessary,” he said. “But that is why you have to have an equal justice system so you can tell people that as the fight for them to be more responsible continues you are going to fight for them to be protected.”
Mr. Poussaint, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard, said he and Mr. Cosby want blacks to deal with such issues as high drug-addiction and dropout rates and the fact that 94 percent of black homicide victims are killed by other blacks.
“It is to the point where there is actually fear developing among black people of other blacks,” he said.
“The other thing we feel we have some control over is the 70 percent single mothers in our community, and a lot of that is due to the unavailability of black men,” he said.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is running second in most 2008 presidential-primary polls, has pressed this issue of absentee fatherhood on the campaign trail.
“There are a lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys; who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one,” he has said in numerous speeches across the country.
Mr. Poussaint agreed, saying that criticizing him and Mr. Cosby for “airing our dirty laundry in public” in the presence of whites is unwarranted and stymies dialogue and progress.
“If we are going to communicate and share information, we have to share. Bill is [saying] that we cannot worry about white people. We have to take these things on ourselves,” he said.