Comedian Bill Cosby touches people's lives, not only with his humor, but also with his activism. He'll soon head back to TV in his native Philadelphia. He'll be a creative consultant to the school district's local-access station. The programming will reinforce lesson plans and give parents the opportunity to talk with their children about education. Cosby attended the city's public schools, has a bachelor's degree from Temple University and a doctorate in education.

Aired on May 26, 2004

Tavis: Dr. Cosby.

Bill Cosby:

Tavis: Nice to see you, sir.

Cosby: Thank you.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. You want to jump right into this?

Cosby: Jump? I don't care.

Tavis: Let's jump right into it, and let me--I got blue cards for you, man. I don't even use blue cards. I got blue cards for you.

Cosby: Please, use the blue cards.

Tavis: Let me, to put some context to our conversation. You know, Jesse Jackson says, 'Content without context is pretext.'

Cosby: Yes.

Tavis: Let me put some context to our conversation. But there are a few quotes that you made at this speech a week or so ago that have been pretty much everywhere. And for those who have been reading or hearing about this, let me just read some of these things, and I want to let you say what you want to say about it. But I picked a few of them out. Here's the first one.

'People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around... The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for their kids...$500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for Hooked On Phonics.'

Cosby: Now, wait. We go one at a time? Oh, OK. All of 'em?

Tavis: No, just 3 or 4 of 'em. Just 3 or 4 quick ones. Is that OK?

Cosby: Let's do this one.

Tavis: Let's do this one. Let's take that first.

Cosby: The mistake I made was not in clarifying that I wasn't talking about 'all.' I think that unless it's later on, I think I said prior to this, the 50% dropout. I think I said that prior to this, '50% dropout in school.' Very, very important, because with that, that means 50% of our African American males, from grade 9 through 12, in certain parts of the city, have no education.

Now I'm also listening to what is a new language, and it's a new language in the area, and it's only good for the people you come in contact living in that area. It's no good on Wall Street. It's no good at Temple University. It's no good filing and understanding an employment waiver or blank.

What I'm saying here, and the mistake I made was... In saying that there are people who are striving and working in the lower economic area, the people who are not holding up their end is quite obvious to me. And that happens to be those people who don't have a clue in terms of what education, learning standard English, math, and graduating from school, what that has for them in terms of empowerment. Many of them, after they drop out, they have to turn around and come all the way back in again. That's not bad for those who want to drop out and come back in again, but we want--I want more voices in the home challenging the child to not just stay in school, 'cause I've always been against saying to children, 'stay in school'. I've always wanted to add 'study' because that's a part of it.

I don't think that there's a greater high... I challenge any high--heroin, marijuana, booze or anything--that if you know your stuff and you go into an exam knowing that you know it, there's no better high. There's no better high than sitting down and then opening the booklet and reading your first question and saying to yourself, 'Who made up this question? This person didn't-- You know, I'm ready to go.' There's no greater high than walking out after the exam and saying, 'How did you answer?' Or being the second or third person out of there.

So, I think that we have not given our children a true picture of our history and that's when I-- I mean, to look at those people, Brown vs. the Board, and then to think about Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark, deceased, sitting someplace in New York, and Kenneth is a friend of ours, and Kenneth in the last 5 or 6 years would just say, 'What's going on? What's going on?' And he's speaking specifically about these people who are changing the language, who are not studying, who--go ahead.

Tavis: Let me jump in right here 'cause you mentioned language and I want to jump in here 'cause I've got this next quote that I think ties in nice with that.

'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. 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.'

Cosby: Exactly.

Tavis: No apologies?

Cosby: Why?

Tavis: I'm just asking.

Cosby: No, no, no. My question is, can't you see--

Tavis: Let me ask that in a rhetorical way. Let me ask in a rhetorical way. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, sir. Ha ha ha!

Cosby: Go ahead. Rhetorical.

Tavis: OK, let me ask that in a rhetorical way. One of the criticisms I've heard of you--and I thought it was a bit interesting and maybe outlandish on some level--but one of the criticisms I heard was, 'Bill Cosby made a whole bunch of money off Fat Albert, Mush Mouth, and a whole bunch of other kids, 'A-yubba-dubba, dubba-dubba-dubba.'

They weren't speaking perfect English, but you had morals, you had values, you had ethics coming through that program. People learned something from that program. But these kids were not speaking the queen's English, and now here you come criticizing another generation. They might not speak the queen's English, but it doesn't mean that they are degenerate, does it?

Cosby: 50% dropout rate. Hello?

Tavis: I heard you. I heard you.

Cosby: I--hey, man, I'm a millionaire.

Tavis: Right.

Cosby: You understand? I have a feeling of pain when I hear and watch the 6:00 news, and I hear about somebody holding up a place and being shot, somebody calling a pizza man and then shooting and killing the person and then running away. I have a feeling about a child jumping double-dutch and some people arguing over drug--over turf, and they shoot and can't hit each other and kill a child double-dutching.

How many times--and you ask this same person who's criticizing these fellows--how many times have they heard what I've said? And the reason why these whatever it is, is upset, talkin' about, 'hubba-dubba-dubba,' he doesn't even understand what that was about.

These are 5 guys, 5, African American boys who look nothing like what would be acceptable to teach people that it's what's in here. You understand? With Albert, you can't get a character more out of sync coming through the sixties and into the seventies than a fat person. And here's a guy who could play, and he is intelligent, and he has a heart. So these anti-heroes are doing something. 50% dropout--and I'm not saying all of the 50% are gonna be thugs and criminals, but we've missed the parenting. We've missed putting them in a position where they have to do what we say. This is not about 'hubba-dubba-dubba-dubba.' Albert and those boys had parents--who parented.

Tavis: Here's what else you said, speakin' of these people:

'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 we are outraged, 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What in the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?'

Cosby: Does that make sense to you?

Tavis: Makes sense to me.

Cosby: No, if you have a son and you get a phone call and your son is shot by the police--and you say, 'Oh,' and then you say, 'Well, what was it?' 'Well, the cop said he stole a--' The first thing that you're gonna say is, 'He didn't do it,' which means you hope that your child didn't do it.

But I'm saying with the parenting, this force of a child continuing to go out and take something and not realize the value of this. The value of a stolen Coca-Cola bottle is a dead human being. That's the value. The value of a child carrying a gun into a school is the value of 2 lives. One--the person that he may kill, and then his life or her life in prison. And I'm saying that there are parents--there are some parents who don't know what subjects their child is supposed to be taking in school. They don't know what grade the child got. And not only that, but they don't even know if the child had an exam.

Tavis: You said this...

'I'm talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange ... Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you don't know he had a pistol? And where is the father?...'

Cosby: Yes. Questions. Questions.

Tavis: All kinds of folk, as you can imagine, have had things to say--as you well know--over the last week and a half about what you said. You've thrilled some, you have engaged others, you have outraged still others. Cornel West was on our radio show today. I want to play a clip of what Cornel West had to say about you, and then I want to offer another perspective about what you've had to say. First, though, let's hear a clip from Princeton professor Cornel West.

Cornel West: And there's no doubt in my mind, when you look at who Cosby is, where he comes from in Philadelphia, that he's speaking out of great compassion and trying to get folk to get on the right track, 'cause we've got some brothers and sisters who are not doing the right things, just like in times in our own lives, we don't do the right thing. We need to be corrected lovingly.

He is trying to speak honestly and freely and lovingly, and I think that's a very positive thing. We know Bill Cosby's not on the right wing. He's not Clarence Thomas, he's not Ward Connelly. We know him to be someone who, over 50 years, his 40 years in his artistic career, to be in deep solidarity with the black people's struggle, and people's struggle as a whole.

Tavis: So, Mr. C, is it--I'm trying to figure out how to phrase this. Is it your right or your responsibility to check black folk, as it were, when you feel they need to be checked? Have you earned that right, or is it a responsibility that you've inherited?

Cosby: You all are late. I said this at Howard University 6 years ago. I've said it in the company of audiences--African American audiences.

Tavis: So why'd it get picked up now? Was it the event?

Cosby: It was the white man who got the word from somebody who was there, who called the white man, who put it in the white paper, which is called the Washington Post. And from that, they left out Mr. Cosby saying 50%. They left out the part about fathering, and they certainly left out 'We've got to take back the neighborhood and the responsibility--take it back.' Then they added something that I think was incorrect, that the people came out stone-faced, stunned. I don't think they were. And I heard the audience a couple of times saying, 'yes,' people applauding.

Responsibility? No, a pain. I'm really in pain. And I want it stopped. I want people to get together, and I want people to take their neighborhood back. Hey, man, you know, to be--I've traveled around all the different cities, and to turn on the TV or the news at 5:00, and I read that some child, 12-year-old, shot. Whether it's Dayton, Ohio; Wilberforce, Ohio; Pennsylvania, Mississippi. And for me, it's painful. That's a life gone. And then when they catch the person that did it, that's another life gone. Where are we? Who are we? 50% dropout in school. 60 to 70% of our incarcerated are illiterate.

Tavis: Cornel West says that your words come from a place and in a spirit of love. I accept that. There are others, as you well know, who have a different point of view. Some have called, have described what you said a week or so ago as classist, elitist, and rooted in generational warfare.

Cosby: Might be generational warfare if they want war. If they want war which is from the words of my mouth without biting down. I think it's clear that I'm not talking about all people. And I think people who are looking at elitists have the wrong attitude, and they must be talking about themselves. Because I don't deal that way. But I am saying, 'Stop it.' I mean, at what point do you stand up, after you've said it very nicely, 'And I think this...'

There are organizations in the lower economic neighborhood. Parents can take their kids, the kids can go to-- These people work very, very hard. But by the same token, if I'm a schoolteacher, I may have a problem, because 20 hours, what is spoken is not spoken in my classroom. And I'm not--somebody took issue and tried to say that I was excusing white people from what is supposed to be happening with fairness. I'm not. I'm saying, OK, Bill Cosby never said this. He never said a thing, OK? 2 years from now, wanna make a bet on 60%? Wanna make a bet on more deaths in the neighborhood than the police are doing? Let's weigh and measure how many the cops killed and how many our drug dealers killed. Let's weigh and measure the outrage, which is deserved, against the policeman and what happens when the drug dealer shoots a 12-year-old child? Where is it?

Tavis: Let me ask you about, back to this notion of Cornel's point that you have done this in the spirit of love and that you have earned the right to criticize or to check or to say whatever you want to say in the best interests of black people. Take me back right quick to your growing up, to your childhood. Talk to me about your mother, Anna Cosby. And I ask that because people--you mentioned earlier, I didn't say it--you're a millionaire. You're a multimillionaire. You got your own plane--by the way, how's Camille doing?

Cosby: She's doing just fine.

Tavis: Camille's the name of the plane. You got your own plane. You go where you wanna go. But you weren't born, though, with a silver spoon in your mouth. Your mama worked 2 or 3 jobs--

Cosby: It wasn't even stainless steel.

Tavis: Ha ha. OK, you weren't born with a stainless steel spoon in your mouth. Your mama worked 2 or 3 jobs. Your daddy was an alcoholic, didn't bring home his paychecks. Your mama read you the Bible, she read you the classics. I think that people look at you now and if they call it classist or elitist, maybe they are not aware of the background. But tell me about how you got so passionate about this.

Cosby: I don't have to--to really show these people anything.

Tavis: But how'd you get so passionate?

Cosby: No, no, wait, wait. I have an attitude--not towards you. No, no, not towards you. My attitude is here, is who I am.

I am saying to the people, 'Hey, man, the bridge is out. The bridge is out.' You can drive over there. You can get angry with me if you want to. A friend of mine said--I was sitting with a diabetic friend of mine, and this cat has got to take a shot or else he'll go blblblblbl--like that. So the cat sat down and he ordered a Coca-Cola. And I said, 'Hey, man, what are you doing with a Coca-Cola?' The guy said, 'What you want me--' I said, 'OK, man.' You can go ahead and get mad at me, but you're not gonna get mad at the Coca-Cola. I'm not the one sending--you understand?

Whether I deserve to, whether I have the right to, I'm saying that I see many things. I see those people who did Brown vs. the Board of Education in the room to make whatever it was--separate but equal or to equal, or to show the children--Ken Clark and his wife with the dolls to show that children felt inferior, too. I'm looking at Nashville and the march where people are trying to sit at a counter, and we say, OK, all of that was done for...this! And then here it is--50% dropout. You can't just blame white people for this, man. You can't. Whether I'm right-wing or left, some people are not parenting.

Tavis: But there are a lot of folk who say that, because Cosby said it, the right wing is gonna take it and use it as ammunition--

Cosby: I don't give me a blank about those right-wing white people! They can't do any more to us than they've already started with. They can't try to throw us back any farther than they've tried to throw us back. And they're doing a very good job of it.

But by the same token, for God's sake, turn around and let's have some meetings and say, 'Brother, um, let me explain to you. You're the father of so-forth and so-on. Brother, you gotta rein them in, man. You gotta go talk to 'em.' 'Oh, what do I do, man? I got a son, he won't listen to me, but--' 'Well, hey, brother, that's your son.'

Tavis: I got a minute to go. Let me ask you. I hate to cut you off. We could do this for hours.

Cosby: No, we couldn't.

Tavis: Well, I'm learning. I could listen to you for... Let me ask you, in less than a minute, whether or not it was worth it. Was it worth what you said a week and a half ago to get this conversation kicked up--

Cosby: Yes.

Tavis: And have people come after you--

Cosby: They're not coming after me anymore. You see, Gloria Steinem said, um, she quoted someone. She said, 'The truth shall set you free...but first you'll be pissed off.'

Tavis: Ha ha ha ha ha! Let me ask you-- Maybe you should run for president.

Cosby: Not at this salary.

Tavis: You kicked--

Cosby: Not at this salary.

Tavis: But you kicked up a conversation here. You got America talking. That's what a presidential candidate ought to do.

Cosby: Ladies and gentlemen, do me a favor. Talk to each other. Talk to each other. I have too many positive stories also. When I said, 'Take your neighborhood back,' this can happen. You have to get out and talk to each other. And you have to realize what is good and what is not good and who's tweaking your children to buy things.

I mean, when girls are beating up other girls because the other girls were virgins, when boys are attacking other boys because the boys are studying and they say, 'You're acting white.' Well, I got news for ya, a guy told me that there were some white kids who attacked other white kids because they were studying and they said, 'You're acting Asian.' So it's a disease all around.

Tavis: I'm out of time.

Cosby: Well, you should be.

Tavis: Ha ha! Dr. Cosby says I should be. Thanks for coming on, Dr. Cosby.

Cosby: All right.

Tavis: Nice to see ya.

Cosby: And your name...?

Tavis: Ha ha ha ha! I'll talk to you next time. Thanks for watching. Keep the faith.

Originally appeared on Tavis Smiley Show.