Comedian Bill Cosby is not known for being timid when discussing some of the hot-button issues in black America.
He has ignited controversy nationwide in the last two years with scathing critiques that black parents and teachers are failing their children, and with the assertion that black society cannot blame white people for low-scoring urban schools and teenage crime.
But while some black leaders and educators have condemned his criticisms, he was greeted with sustained applause Saturday when he took on the black educational system in front of hundreds of Los Angeles area parents, teachers and students at Maranatha Community Church in the Crenshaw district.
Cosby was the keynote speaker at a forum titled “Education Is a Civil Right,” organized by local black educators to help forge an African American education agenda.
No subject was sacred.
Cosby chastised those black parents who he said fail to involve themselves in their children’s education, know what subjects they’re studying, visit their schools or meet the teachers. Some fail to monitor their children’s habits, he said.
“We’ve got parents who won’t check the bedrooms of their children to see if there’s a gun,” he said.
He chided teachers for not explaining clearly to students who ask, “Why do I need to know this?” that their algebra and English classes can help them obtain higher-paying jobs.
“I’m not asking you to entertain the children,” he told listening teachers. “If you teach English, and you can’t answer this child ... then you’re in trouble, and we’ve been in trouble. We can’t answer these children, because nobody’s given them any goals.”
If students know that they could fix elevators at the local mall and earn $75,000 a year, he said, “and if they like the job of fixing the elevator, you’ve got to get to them with that algebra.”
Even some churchgoers drew a rebuke. Cosby riffed on the common expression “The Lord will find a way,” adding, “So I’m just going to wait for Jesus to find a way.”
He said: “Too many people are waiting for Jesus to come along and cut your grass. And Jesus isn’t going to come along and cut your grass.”
Cosby, who has a doctorate in education, sparked an angry national debate with a May 2004 speech at a gala marking the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court desegregation ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education. He derided black youths for wearing hats backward and “pants down around the crack” and parents for speaking poor English.
Since then, he has raised the same issues at talks around the country, including one a year ago in crime-plagued Compton, where he urged residents to celebrate their city, such as by holding a parade to honor tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, who come from Compton.
Cosby and other educators took questions from the audience Saturday, including one from Kathy Stewart, 30, of South Los Angeles, who said that her parents put her on the street at age 14 and that she is raising three children alone. She is studying to be a teacher and drug counselor, she said.
When she asked the panel for advice, Cosby asked if the fathers saw the children. She said yes.
“That’s the most important thing,” he responded. “It’s very important that they pitch in.... It’s not about you and them. It’s about the children.”
He praised Stewart for her resilience.
“You’re setting an example for those three children,” he said.