'Come on People' Cosby's Plea to Black Communities In a new book, Come On People, comedian Bill Cosby and psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint urge struggling black communities in America to get "on the path from victims to victors."
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'Come on People' Cosby's Plea to Black Communities

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In a speech in 2004, Bill Cosby argued that many of the problems within the black community are self-inflicted - the result of a counterproductive culture of violence and victimhood.

After enormous controversy erupted, Cosby and his friend Dr. Alvin Poussaint spent much of the next three years in a series of town hall meetings across the country. And now, they've written a book called "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors."

Cosby and Poussaint say that fatherlessness has torn the heart out of black communities, but they also say there's a cure. Parents need to take more responsibility for their kids, their kids need to take more responsibility for their actions, and that the way for African-Americans to get ahead is to study hard and work hard, stay out of debt, eat better, and, as they put it, to back off the rap and reinforce standard English. The authors join us in just a moment.

How do you think Cosby's arguments have changed the conversation? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You could also comment on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the hour, David Gardner of the Motley Fool will join us to talk about the market at the end of the year and about my fantasy portfolio.

But first, Bill Cosby joins us from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. BILL COSBY (Comedian, Co-author, "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors"): Well, thank you. Where's Alvin?

CONAN: Alvin Poussaint is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School where he directs the Judge Baker Children's Center, and he's with us from the studios of member station WGBH in Boston. And thank you for being with us today.

Dr. ALVIN POUSSAINT (Director, Media Center, Judge Baker Children's Center; Co-author, "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors"): Thank you.

CONAN: And, Bill Cosby, I wanted to ask you, this book is really the product of all these meetings which you describe as callouts. Describe what happened?

Mr. COSBY: Well - pardon me - we were called by people from different cities who agreed that work needed to be done in the communities, and we agreed - I agreed that I would come in. However, we had to have certain things on the stage - whether it was a church or a community college or whatever - and there had to be clear examples of people who had had, at points in their lives, hit rock bottom. They were victims and then they decided that they would begin to pay attention to things around them, that they would begin to clean up whatever it was they were doing that was not good for them, and seek help, and then stay on the path to victory.

CONAN: And, Dr. Poussaint, let me follow up and ask you. In the course of all of these meetings, I wonder what it is you've learned?

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, we've learned that people have choices to make and they can take the high road or they could take the low road. The low road - they get engaged in a lot of self-destructive behavior and tear up the community -violence, crime, drugs - just kind of destroy their family.

And we found that there were a lot of people at these callouts who did hit rock bottom, but made choices, decided to change their ways, with - had self-revelations about what they could do and what was possible. And the other important thing was that there were people in the community - foster parents, other relatives - who frequently played a very key role in helping these young people and old people move on another path where they were successful going back to school to get a GED, taking job training programs, getting a job, and that the community coming together was key to people making it.

CONAN: And I wonder…

Mr. COSBY: May I? The book is very, very clear. Let me give you an example. Not only do we cover who didn't behave in school, who didn't behave in the home, what parent didn't check to make sure that her child - what her child was reading and wasn't reading, but we have diet. It's very, very important what you're eating, when you're eating, what your child is eating and the foods that your child consumes - overladen with carbs and very little protein, the lack of Omega 3 fatty acids; it's - that also is in the book. And then there's - there are things like eating at home with the family.

I think Alvin has a number there of the families that sit - actually sit and eat together. What was it, Alvin?

Dr. POUSSAINT: I don't have an exact number, but there's evidence that in families where the kids eat together with the parents, there's fewer problems. There's even less substance abuse in such families the data show. So that one activity - being together and being able to communicate, eating together, sense of community in the family - makes a major difference to the feeling of the children, the feeling that they're empowered or in issues with self-esteem and being together and feeling that people are around there to be of help to you and lot of good nurturing goes on.

CONAN: And a lot of other things in the book, Bill Cosby, about what a lot of people would describe as middleclass values: Work hard; study hard; get ahead.

Mr. COSBY: Well, look, if you're lower, lower economic, what it is that you strive for? To stay lower, lower economic or should you try, as most of us coming up in the '50s and the '40s and the '30s were told, look, this is what school is for; this is what church is about.

I remember just last week, a friend of mine - he's 75-years-old - and we were talking about dating. And he talked about Howard University and how he was in Washington, D.C. and he went around the Howard Campus and he stopped to say hello to this very attractive young lady, of course, to see if they could strike up something, and he said she interviewed him. What high school did you go to? How did you do in high school? You know, what college are you? What do you plan to do with your life? And so, these are the things that - they will sound strange, but they also make an awful lot of sense.

For instance, many, many young girls, regardless of race, color or creed, who are pregnant before they turn 16, who is the father? Well, the guy's out of work; he never did work; he's on the street corner smoking cigarettes, talking with the other fellow. Okay, so if you're going to allow yourself - and that's for just this pregnancy.

I'm not talking about the pregnancy where Uncle Joe is living or stepfather so and so is living with and decides that he's going to commit to statutory rape or something. I'm just talking about the choice that the girl - the young girl makes to be in sex with and unprotected and there's no interview and there is no love in particular because when you talk to this young woman at age 15, 16, where is the father? You ask. And I'm talking about the ones who say he's no longer in our life.

CONAN: Let me read an excerpt from a column by one of your critics. This is from the Denver Post in October by a woman named Rhonda Hackett.

(Reading) Since his May 2004 speech before the NAACP, Cosby has led a very public march against blacks. It would appear he has fully embraced the philosophy of right-wing conservatives who suggest that millions of black people live in abject poverty by their own doing.

How do you respond to that?

Mr. COSBY: I'll tell her to read the book and apologized to her readers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guests are Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint. Their book is "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors."

And we'll turn now to John(ph). John is calling us from Sacramento in California.

JOHN (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JOHN: Yes, Dr. Cosby and Dr. Poussaint, I am using your book in the class I teach in leadership for diversity, equity and community.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: One of my students teaches in a prison in California. On his own, he randomly asked 102 inmates, would you read Bill Cosby's new book? He did not tell them the title, the text or anything. 97 percent said yes, they would read the book. So the challenge is, how do we get the book to those folks?

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well…

Mr. COSBY: Well, this is not on this side - I don't think this - it's on this side of the table.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COSBY: I think that it's on this - you have numbers and from what I've been told about politicians, they pay attention to numbers. I think that if you put the dollars together - for instance, what does it cost, in California, Doctor, to educate in public school a child? And then you put that against what it costs yearly to incarcerate…

JOHN: Absolutely.

Mr. COSBY: …the same child and it comes out to, like, maybe 8,000 a year and then 60,000…

JOHN: Yeah.

Mr. COSBY: Well, eight from 60,000 is very simple. We've got a 52,000 - we've got $52,000 to play with here.

JOHN: Yeah.

Mr. COSBY: And so I think your politicians need to hear this, but the public has to hear this, period.

JOHN: Mm-hmm. Okay.

CONAN: So John, do you think you can get copies of the book to those people?

JOHN: Well, we'll work on it.

Mr. COSBY: There are ways, John.

Dr. POUSSAINT: I think you can. In fact, you can call the publisher and see what can work be worked OUT.

JOHN: Good deal.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call and good luck with the program.

JOHN: All right. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

We'll continue talking with Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint in just a minute, today. Together, they wrote the book, "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors."

More of your calls, too, 800-989-8255. You can e-mail us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're still taking your end-of-the-year investment questions for the Motley Fool. You can send those to us by now by e-mail, talk@npr.org. David Gardner joins us later in the hour.

Right now, Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint are with us. Their new book, "Come on People," focuses on the problems they see in many African-American communities and it's about their ideas on how to solve these problems - personal responsibility, education, a healthy diet, for example. You can read an excerpt from the book at npr.org/talk.

You're also welcome to join this conversation by phone. How do you think Bill Cosby's arguments have changed the conversation? 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Chuck(ph). Chuck is calling us from San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Thank you very much. And I do appreciate and respect the argument that your guests are making. And there is a lot to be said for the kind of a bootstrap approach They're advocating. I'm wondering though what they think of the - what seems to be a problem and the gap and educational opportunities available in, say, rich areas versus the less financially, well-endowed areas. And if, you know, for people who want to take that bootstrap approach, don't we have a kind of a responsibility to make sure they have somewhere to go when they decided to, you know, work on the education?

CONAN: Hmm. Dr. Poussaint.

Mr. COSBY: No. Where do you see that they don't have some place to go?

CHUCK: Well, I'm in San Francisco and I recently heard that down in the Peninsula, where you have parents who can afford to make very substantial contributions to their kids' school - the funding that those schools have in the arts and sciences programs and the athletic programs and so forth are way, way disproportionate to - in the areas around here, where the parents don't have the resources to make those contributions.

Mr. COSBY: I see. So now - well, that's a clearer question, I think, than the one you were asking.

CHUCK: My apologies.

Mr. COSBY: You said something about where to go. Go ahead, Alvin.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think there's a serious problem in schools in urban areas and poor areas that, you know, schools are frequently supported with property tax some more and affluent neighborhoods get better schools, and a lot of the schools in the cities where there is a high dropout rate over 50 percent among black males that the schools are not good schools. And I think that community and the politicians and the parents have to do all that they can to make those schools better. But they only can do it if they're activist about it, if they're involved, if they care about education, and even to stay on their kids about getting his much education out of those schools as possible, and become participants in the entire process. But then, also, work on the policy and political issues that stand in the way of these schools being improved with better teachers, better administration, better facilities.

CHUCK: Is there somewhere that people can contribute to try and close that gap? This of time of year, I think, probably a lot of people would appreciate it if they knew their contributions will be well spent.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think you can get in touch with a lot of different community organization and the church, and you can get involve in the school. There's no reason why a group of people can't call a superintendent of the city and the principals and sit down and talk about what are the issues, what are the kinds of things that need to happen to improve this school for our students.

CONAN: Chuck, thanks for the call.

CHUCK: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go now to - this is Tasha(ph). Tasha with us from Stockton in California.

TASHA (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me. My comment was how a lot of people will complaining about black children getting in trouble and being troublemakers and not, you know, doing the best that they can do.

But a lot of people don't want to do anything about it. You know, like they were saying earlier, you can spend more money on the front end versus the back end, but nobody is advocating for that. Nobody is out there pushing for it.

And even on the local level - even local resident. You know, what are they doing to go on to the schools to volunteer? You know, the YMCA needs more coaches. And what are the people doing? You know, you can't complain about it and then not go out and put your effort into it.

CONAN: Now, let me turn that around for you, Tasha. What are you doing?

TASHA: What am I doing? Well, that's one thing I do do is like, you know, volunteer with the YMCA and, you know, it's Christmas time, we participate in a program that gives, you know, get Christmas gifts for kids and, you know, providing meals for Thanksgiving for people.

You know, so I'm trying to go out there and, you know, be a positive influence. And, you know, let kids know that there's people out there who care about them and who are concerned about, you know, their well-being.

Mr. COSBY: What happens, Tasha, when you talk to a kid and find out that the parent is not visible?

TASHA: Well, you know, that's part of the problem. That's why I barely see more adults out there who are visible because the parents are adults. You can't make the parents do, you know, what they don't want to do. I tried to - you can talk to the parents and, you know, encourage them to make suggestions, you know, and tell them, you know, you have a bright kid. It would be great if you would, you know, do this or do that.

Mr. COSBY: And what do they say?

TASHA: Well, you know, a lot of times they would agree, but either…

Mr. COSBY: But what then do they do?

TASHA: Well, I - you know, I can't monitor that. I can't, you know…

Mr. COSBY: I didn't ask you to monitor. I just you to tell us after you meet a kid and this kid needs - in terms of the way you see the situation - more involvement from the parent, yet the child or the kid says that my parents is not visible. So you say you talked to that parent about - and you did a beautiful job in telling the parent how important he or she happens to be to the character build of this child. What does that person say when you asked for more involvement?

TASHA: What does that person say when I asked them about…

Mr. COSBY: What does the person say when you asked for more involvement with his or her child?

TASHA: For that parent be more involved, they usually - they would probably say yes.

Mr. COSBY: No, not probably. What do they say?

TASHA: Well, they - then they talked about the problems that they have and they're like well, you know, I'm working or I'm not…

Mr. COSBY: Okay, stop there. Stop there. They're working, and they say…

TASHA: And then they (unintelligible).

Mr. COSBY: …then that they can't come in and be involved. Is that what you're saying?

TASHA: Yes.

Mr. COSBY: Okay.

TASHA: But what I'm saying is that sometimes it is a matter of giving the kids that extracurricular activities and they don't - they can't pick them up later from school. They need to ride the bus or something like that. And my point is that to make - try to get the community to make over the connection. To have, you know, work - arrange kids who can get rides or, you know…

Mr. COSBY: That can happen. But I also happen to have met a fellow in Houston, Texas, and he was on the stage with us. And he talked about a company he had which was doing community service. And it was failing because he couldn't get the parents to bring the children in. And it went for two years with minimal involvement to the point they just felt they were failing. And then they decided to turn around and begin to put a little pressure on the parent just in terms of thinking.

Well, I'm busy. I'm working. I can't get my kid there. All right. Are you living with someone? If you can get the answer, well, yeah. Who is else is there? My sister's here. Well, can your sister drive the kids over? Well, yes, she could do that.

So sometimes - and Alvin, I'm sure we'll clear this - that people just don't think. They are stuck and they're stopped. And so they will say I am busy. I'm working and they don't think…

TASHA: With Bill Cosby.

Unidentified Woman: With Bill Cosby? What are you getting calls with Bill Cosby?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think there's a conversation going on the other end of the phone, too.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Somebody was excited.

CONAN: Yeah, somebody was pretty excited.

TASHA: Sorry.

(Soundbite of laughs)

Mr. COSBY: Go ahead. Okay, Alvin. They stack this… Well, you can cut her off.

Dr. POUSSAINT: No, I think there's a lot of people…

CONAN: Tasha, thanks very much for the call.

Dr. POUSSAINT: There are a lot of people who are used to not being involved, feeling it's all the school's job that they don't need to do anything. I think they have to more - made more aware that their involvement with the schools, and in fact, pushing education not just in the school, but in the community and in their own homes.

And in the book, we have an entire chapter on parenting where paying attention to education is very key and very - very, very important to start the children off right. And we encourage people not to feel like helpless or like victims, but to feel like there's hope and that they - if they're active, they can make a difference. If they're passive and say, well, there's nothing I can do, then nothing good is going to happen. So that people have been to get up off their bottoms much more than they are doing now to make a difference in their children's lives and making it - make a difference in the community well being.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Mark(ph) in Chicago. I'm a fairly educated African-American and speak correct English and dress in fairly conservative attire, by no means a suit-and-tie person at all. But when I walk down the street I've been called a wigger, uppity and all sorts of derogative comments from my own people. My question is why does our community frown on people like myself who don't do drugs, gets an education and works hard for everything I work for?

Mr. COSBY: Alvin is a psychiatrist…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COSBY: Let the psychiatrist…

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think it's a very interesting problem. I think that there's jealousy when - in the black community - when a black student is doing very well, it's like crabs in a burrow. You want to bring him down. And it's because also the people who say that have kind of a negative image of themselves and call them a wigger - you all know what that is.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Kind of like he's acting white because he's being successful. So I think a lot of those people are have a kind of a negative image of being a black person. And I think that this is…

Mr. COSBY: But they've also - go ahead, Alvin. I'm sorry.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Mm-hmm. No, go ahead, Bill.

Mr. COSBY: I just feel this people have never been challenged. I don't mean for you to get into a fight.

Dr. POUSSAINT: A fight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COSBY: I mean for you to turn around and begin to speak for yourself about your passion, with who you want to become and what you want to become. Hold up a book written by Frederick Douglass and challenge your name-calling friends. Frederick Douglass, a man who I don't know if there were any other slaves who looked at what he was doing and called him names and said why do you want to leave slavery? Why do you want to learn how to read, et cetera, et cetera.

But clearly, sir, you and others - it's the same as the mathematicians, the people who are at schools like Carnegie Mellon and MIT and their friends are calling them geeks, and the scientists and the people and the biologists, and these kids tend to feel down on themselves. And I have said to them, period, if you're a scientist, if you're into physics, if you're into electricity and if - you have got to explain to these people, who are making fun of you, you know, there's not a thing you can do when you wake up in the morning that a scientist hasn't been responsible for you finding your way around that house to brush your teeth or to heat or the ice cubes that come out of your refrigerator.

CONAN: Bill Cosby is with us. Also, Dr. Alvin Poussaint. Their book, "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk with Carmen(ph), Carmen with us from Oakland in California.

CARMEN (Caller): Yes, hello. I just want to say that I agree with everything that I've heard this far by Dr. Bill Cosby and Dr. Poussaint. I am an African-American, middle-class woman, an educated woman. I am - I don't like to hear myself agree with you. I don't like to hear the things that I hear myself say about my people. But I'm frustrated and angered and disappointed that we are still reliant on others to make us be the better people or the better parents that we have the ability to be.

I live in an area of Oakland, which hasn't - and it has an excellent school district. I know that not all people have the resources to live in that area, but you had better believe that if I did not have those resources, I wouldn't know when the Oakland Unified School District enrollment fair is, which is this weekend - Friday and Saturday. And I would be the first in line to find out about what other schools are available to me.

I would get my community involved as much as I can to be involved, to be activists. And that's all right, and that's our responsibility. And I'm just tired of hearing excuses for why we can't do that. We don't necessarily all have the resources, and I appreciate that, but we have voices and no one can take that away from us unless we do the work by ourselves. And that's when I'm tired of seeing my community do.

Mr. COSBY: And you have a wonderful mayor.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Ron Dellums.

CARMEN: That's right. We do. But we have our own voices. We don't…

Mr. COSBY: Yes.

CARMEN: We need to be involved and be active in our community, and we need to get together and speak and fight for ourselves.

Mr. COSBY: Thank you.

Dr. POUSSAINT: And we agree that too many people make excuses. And we have to do away with the excuses and become involved in doing an activism.

CONAN: I think it's fair to point out - and Carmen, thanks very much for the call and good luck at the school fair.

CARMEN: Thank you.

CONAN: It's fair to point out that it's not that you deny that racism exists, it's that, you say, people have to work with this and, in fact, that opportunities now are better than they ever have been.

Mr. COSBY: Frederick Douglass learned how to read and write so that he would be able to express himself and judge for himself, understanding the words of the enemy. Education is about that. It is not to be thrown away. The respect for human life is not to be thrown away. I sit in this city of Philadelphia right now, and I have seen tapes of prisoners begging young men to put down the guns, stop trying to make a business of drug-dealing, get into the schools, do things that these men, who are in for life, wish they had made for their choices. And I have heard of young men who, after viewing that, would say, he was stupid. He got caught. I'm not going to get caught.

CONAN: Bill Cosby, co-author of "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors." He joined us from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia.

Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. COSBY: Thank you.

CONAN: And Dr. Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard where he directs the Judge Baker Children's Center, joined us from WGBH in Boston.

Thanks to you too.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Thank you.

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