Thursday, September 9, 2004

Comedian Bill Cosby returned to Washington this week to tell black policy-makers and activists that they must join together to lead a new social movement to help strengthen black families.

“Parenting needs to come to the forefront. If you need help and you don’t know how to parent, we want to be able to reach out and touch you,” Mr. Cosby told reporters during a special session of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 34th annual legislative conference, which began yesterday and ends Saturday.

Mr. Cosby, whose bold comments in May created a foundation for this new social-values movement in the black community, said his goal is to create a “better America.” The comedian is being praised for taking a stand and motivating an open national discussion about the internal social ills of black communities, whereas before, such issued often were discussed only behind closed doors.

“I think [my comments] have created a sea change. I think the frenzy came from white people because I even heard whites say to me that ‘the same things are happening in our house,’” he said.

Programs discussed by the panel include: parental assistance, youth empowerment through education and a large component of activities for young black males.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, former Democratic presidential candidate and speaker alongside Mr. Cosby, said he wants to focus on removing stereotypical perceptions of urban black culture from the mainstream and working with young black males to develop mentoring programs.

“We are working on a plan to deal with problems of inner-city behavior, this life of excess … we will no longer allow our community to be slandered as one of thugs and hoodlums, hos and bitches, that is not our culture,” he said.

Details of the policy proposals will be made public at the end of the caucus, Mr. Sharpton added.

Mr. Cosby set off a maelstrom in May when he publicly criticized economically disadvantaged blacks who don’t accept parental responsibility. The actor-comedian later explained that he had been motivated to speak out after talking with Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey about an 8-year-old girl who was killed in her aunt’s living room in Northeast Washington during a drive-by shooting.

The comedian spent the summer appearing at high-profile black political functions, including the annual meeting of the National Associated for the Advancement of Colored People and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition’s Citizenship and Education Fund annual conference, where he said those who are speaking against him are trying to hide “black people’s dirty laundry.”

“Let me tell you something, your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it’s cursing and calling each other ‘nigger’ as they’re walking up and down the street,” he said. “They think they’re hip … they can’t read, they can’t write, they’re laughing and giggling, and they’re going nowhere.”

Those statements and others touched off a media frenzy and criticism from prominent blacks, who said Mr. Cosby was validating whites who think that the problems in the black community with drugs, crime and poverty are exclusively self-motivated.

“Dr. Cosby has not said a thing that each of us is not aware of,” said Johnetta B. Cole, president of Bennett College in North Carolina. “Not one of us would deny that racism oppresses us everyday, but that is the external force. The sources are internal and external, and we will struggle on both fronts.”

Mr. Cosby said mainstream press organizations and corporate America play a role in depicting blacks as jewelry fanatics and thugs with stories and advertising promotions that play into the stereotype.

“People are merchandising and trying to sell things to our children that have nothing to do with their future … and the press is always there to show the bad, but when there is something positive, I see the lights go out and people packing up their cameras,” he said.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 68 percent of black children in 2003 were born out of wedlock, and the same percentage of black children are living in single-family homes. In 1965, the number of out-of-wedlock births among blacks was 25 percent.

Democratic Reps. Corrine Brown of Florida, Gregory W. Meeks of New York, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan and Juanita Millender-McDonald of California said they stand ready to support the effort in whatever way they can.

Mr. Meeks said the first hurdle to cross will be coordinating successful programs already in place in congressional districts of the Black Caucus members to create a national network.

“Secondly,” he said, “we have to continue to involve community leaders, our churches to help give guidance to parents.”

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