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Cosby bringing his issues to Compton

Today he'll hold 'Call Out' meetings, part of his controversial effort to address tough topics in black communities.

October 19, 2005|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Bill Cosby, who ignited a firestorm of debate among African Americans when he chastised poorer blacks on issues ranging from bad grammar to the squandering of opportunities provided by the civil rights movement, will take his crusade today to Compton, a city plagued by a skyrocketing murder rate, a dismal school system and other urban ills.

Cosby, currently touring the country's lower-income communities, will host a "Call Out" at Compton High School. He says he wants to address what he feels is "apathy" in the area and engage residents in a dialogue revolving around parenting, education and social responsibility.

"I do believe we need clarity on what is protection for our youth," Cosby said Monday in a phone interview. "Education should be as important as your child's cough, your child's sneeze, runny nose or high fever. That is part of the protection."

The event marks Cosby's first nonperforming appearance on the West Coast since last year, when his headline-making remarks won praise and criticism from blacks.

At a May 2004 NAACP ceremony celebrating the anniversary of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision, Cosby said, "These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we have these knuckleheads running around.... 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. And then I heard the father 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."

Some in the black community congratulated Cosby for his bluntness, saying his comments were painful but accurate. But others felt his tone and some of his words were harmful and elitist. The message inspired a book-length response from University of Pennsylvania humanities professor Michael Eric Dyson: "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?"

Cosby, who lives in New York, said he was not surprised by the negative reaction: "What they are yelling about has to do with the pain that comes with having the covers pulled off, and responsibility being put in its proper place. I don't feel a challenge from them, I hear them yelling and crying out. I'm looking at the murders and the things that say glaringly, 'There's danger, something is wrong,' and I'm asking my people to wake up."

Local political activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson said this week that Cosby's "comments were vital, but the problem was the framework. It gave the impression that it's only one group that has lousy parents and drug addiction. That was not what was intended, but that's what resonates. It reinforces negative stereotypes about African Americans. There's an overwhelming majority of parents who are doing the right thing."

The Compton event is being organized by photographer Howard Bingham and has no official association with the city's unified school district. The two sessions are free to the public but require tickets, which are available through the Compton City Clerk's office or at Compton City Hall.

At 4:30 p.m., Cosby plans to moderate a session dedicated to foster parents and their children, and grandparents raising children.

"I want to give them information on the wonderful opportunities in the junior colleges and community colleges," he said. "The beauty of these colleges is that you can walk in with a young adult, and they will help you find courses and education in areas you are interested in. If young people have made a mistake in life, they're not dead in the water. They can recover and become what they want to become."

A second session at 6:30 p.m. will focus more closely on Compton, which has been struck by a sharp rise in homicides. At least 54 people have been killed so far this year, 11 more than all of last year. At today's event, Cosby said, he will talk about two of the city's most famous former residents -- tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams.

"The Williams sisters came right here from Compton," he said. "The examples of achievement are there on every level of this family -- father, mother and children."

Although Compton has suffered for years under a reputation of being a haven for gangs and criminal behavior, Cosby said, he has sought in the past to turn the image around.

He once suggested to a Compton politician, whom he declined to name, that the city should honor the Williams sisters with a parade. "I said, ... 'They exhibited the mental toughness of being African American in this world, and now they're worldwide celebrities.' "

That was three years ago. "There's been no parade, nothing to honor this achievement," he said. "It's the mind-set of many of our leaders who can't or won't get past this apathy. These are the questions that I want to ask."

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