Cosby, Poussaint to Blacks: 'Come On, People'
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, reporting in Iraq. Two reporters have been killed there in the past two days and we think it's important to talk about that.
But first, we're going to spend a good chunk in the program today talking about Bill Cosby and his view about what's wrong and what's right in the African-American community. His words attacking what he considers a culture of pathology in black America have stung in recent years, and he's been stung back with criticism from the likes of Michael Eric Dyson, among others. We're going to hear from him in just a few minutes.
But he's continuing to speak and he has a new book written with renowned psychiatrist and a longtime Cosby adviser, Dr. Alvin Poussaint. It's called "Come On, People," and it's a cry, a demand, actually, for African-Americans to show greater personal responsibility. It's subtitled "On the Path from Victims to Victors."
Dr. Alvin Poussaint joins us now from the Harvard Medical School in Boston. He is a professor of psychiatry there and a prolific author in his own right.
Dr. Poussaint, welcome.
Dr. ALVIN POUSSAINT (Harvard Medical School): Thank you.
MARTIN: What do you think you and Dr. Cosby add to this conversation that perhaps other people are not?
Dr. POUSSAINT: I think add that we're much more, I think, direct and blunt in terms about demands from the people of trying to do the right thing, trying to take the high road, not to make excuses for themselves, and certainly not to wallow in degradation that really further handicaps both them as individuals and their families. A lot of behavior in the black community is self-destructive and they have to understand it in that way. Using the N-word on our children and so on is negative, and people are trying to legitimize that.
And so we've picked some errors that we felt were very, very important that the black community had to function well with in order to be strong. In order to fight systemic racism, institutional racism, you have to be a strong people. And by wallowing in degradation with the drugs, with the alcohol, with the non-responsible sexual behavior that exposes you to all kinds of things, particularly AIDS, is not the way to go.
And in the book we spell it out. I mean we're not just talking about violence - people want to concentrate on that - we're talking about parents being good parents, and we have a whole chapter on that in "Come On, People." And we get very specific, that young women and young mothers have to take good care of their health. They have to bring healthy children in the world. They can't be taking drugs. They can't be using alcohol. Because we have to get a good start with our children.
MARTIN: I mean you go very detailed with it. You give specific instruction about nutrition.
Dr. POUSSAINT: That's right.
Dr. POUSSAINT: We want it to be…
MARTIN: Limiting television time. Not hitting, which I think might be a surprise for some people who…
Dr. POUSSAINT: Right. We take position that physical punishment is really a high-risk thing to do to children. And two-thirds of child abuse cases start off with the parent giving discipline by hitting their child and it gets out of control. Two-thirds. And we all know - the evidence is in - that child abuse and neglect is responsible for a lot of negative behavior in people, including being violent, including having low feelings of self-worth, including not doing as well in school.
MARTIN: Children are very much at the heart of this book. I want to play a short clip from your joint interview with entertainer Bill Cosby with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press."
(Soundbite of "Meet the Press")
Mr. BILL COSBY (Actor, Author): I've also said our children are trying to tell us something, and we're not listening. You've got to listen to these children. You can't feel that they're - that, well, it's the system, and that's why - no, bring your children in. If you say that my black child is going to do more time for selling crack cocaine than your white child for selling cocaine, then I'm going to tell my black child, don't sell it. Here's what's happening, son. It's the same as warning your kid that the Ku Klux Klan is coming. Don't tell me you can't help it.
MARTIN: Bill Cosby with Tim Russert this past Sunday on "Meet the Press," the NBC public affairs show.
So Dr. Poussaint, I think this goes to the heart of, I think, some of the criticism of the book and of Dr. Cosby and your message, which is that it's simplistic, that the argument is that, you know, it's almost as if you're blaming people for their circumstances when some of these circumstances are beyond your control. You surely would never suggest that anyone who was attacked by the Klan deserved to have that happen. So some would argue that it's a similar vein. What would you say to that?
Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, what I would say to that is that we're trying to get to the core of what makes a person strong, what makes a person strong as an individual and in character and what makes a person strong as an activist who needs to go up against systemic racism in our society. And I think one of the things that cause that is to raise healthy children both physically and psychologically to give them the things they need so that they grow up thinking well of themselves, avoid self destructive behaviors, get an education, stay in school, and then be productive citizens in the community. I think that's fundamental to us being a strong people and always has been, and we can't lose sight of that as a tool.
We have over 50 percent high school dropout rates among black males, sometimes going up to 75 percent. Black females still do drop out at a very high rate. And once you're a high school dropout, there a lot of bad things in store for you. Eighty percent of inmates, prisoners - and we have 2.2 million of them, 80 percent of them are high school dropouts. I mean it's just outrageous that we have over nine - about 910,000, at last count, African-Americans in prison; 90 percent of them are black males.
They get recycled into the community. These men cannot get jobs, they are stigmatized. If they put on their applications that they'd been in prison, no one wants to hire them. They have incredible unemployment rates. They are rejected frequently by their own community. Many of them become homeless. A lot of them have mental conditions. And it's destroying the black community.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Doctor Alvin Poussaint about his new book which he co-authored with Bill Cosby. It's called "Come On, People."
In your book you say, as you probably know, certain people tell us that they are picking on the poor. Many of those who accuse us are scholars and intellectuals upset that we are not blaming everything on white people as they do. Well, blaming only the system keeps certain people in the limelight but it also keeps the black poor wallowing in victimhood.
Now, you don't call him by name, but I do believe you were probably speaking about Michael Eric Dyson, who's a professor now at Georgetown University. He wrote a book specifically criticizing Mr. Cosby's speech and his subsequent sort of dialogue. I think his specific criticism, though, is that the language that Mr. Cosby has used in the past is almost as degrading as the situation he is attacking.
Dr. POUSSAINT: Well…
MARTIN: That he's demeaning poor people and black people in particular. How would you address that?
Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I wouldn't dwell on that. I think Cosby, if you view a tape of the speech, he was speaking in a lot of frustration, in a lot of anger at that time, of feeling we were squandering opportunities. And yes, he was annoyed with what he saw as a lot of kids not taking advantage of opportunities, but also degrading themselves with all kinds of behavior, and he didn't like seeing it, and so he spoke to that. I think one thing he said that people hopped on, he referred to lower socioeconomic. And they felt, well, he's dumping on the poor.
Well, the fact is that the poor people suffer most from systemic racism. They suffer also the most from all of the things that I have been talking about. And so even the focus of the book - and it's for all poor people, if you use black people as a model, I mean, whether they're Latino, whether they are white and so on, is that they are things that they can do to change. People kind of say, well, you're poor and there's nothing we can do, and we're not going to criticize you, and we're going to just let you keep going on the way you've been going on. And that's not acceptable. I think we should have higher expectations for all of our people, including the black poor, because all of us originally came from poverty in the first place.
MARTIN: Well, no, I understand your point. But in attacking people's name, sort of example like Shaniqua and Teliqua, and which - things of that sort - I mean I think that the argument was that that's demeaning unnecessarily. I mean, a lot of famous people have names like Condoleezza…
Dr. POUSSAINT: What he was saying is, if you're going to give your kid an African name, that should mean something special, you should have pride in that. You shouldn't be giving them those names and then not caring about them, abusing them, neglecting them, and not having them represent the dignity that an African-sounding name should have. And I agree with that. That you don't - if you really care, it's not much, it's very superficial to give your child an African-American-sounding name, a real one, but not then really have any respect for your own people.
MARTIN: If there's one thing you'd like people to take away from the book, what would it be?
Dr. POUSSAINT: One thing I would like them to take away from the book is, one, that they should take the high road, that they should be positive, that we really have to care for our children and treat them well and not accept behaviors that help them self-destruct. And we also emphasize in the book throughout that in order to deal with systemic racism and in order to get the things in society and change the disparities that are negative for blacks, that people have to be activists and they have to be participants.
This is important even psychologically. We always fight back. And it's always been - it's better to have tried something and failed than never to have tried it at all in this type of situation, particularly with the horrendous things the black community is now facing.
MARTIN: Dr. Alvin Poussaint is professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the media center of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. He is the co-author with Bill Cosby of "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors."
Dr. Poussaint, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Dr. POUSSAINT: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.