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Bill Cosby and Minority Education: The Truth of the Matter

Bill Cosby and Minority Education: The Truth of the Matter
By Laverne Lewis Gaskins

By now, many people are familiar with the May 17, 2004, controversial comments of Bill Cosby during Howard University’s Brown v. Board of Education commemorative event wherein he spoke about the shortcomings of lower socioeconomic Blacks. While Howard University has not released a transcript of the event, major newspapers have provided snippets of his remarks. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, 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’ to improve their children’s reading and speech.” Cosby said many ills he sees in the Black communities could be blamed on a lack of education.

Stereotypes are unfair because, as is implicit in the very definition of the word, they do not reflect empirical studies and, therefore, are not conducive to intelligent dialogue. Stereotyping, in terms of individual accomplishment, is likewise a dangerous practice because it discounts the impact of external factors and minimizes social accountability. Our history is replete with examples of how stereotyping has been used as a method of subjugating or oppressing groups of individuals. These examples are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to state that stereotypes or overgeneralizations regarding any particular ethnic or racial group  is a disservice to all. Stereotypes discourage individual aspirations and regulate individual achievement to the dubious classification of an “exception to the general rule.” Stereotypes are inherently unsound because they presuppose full knowledge of individual characteristics and personal experiences. In our current society, care must be exercised to avoid encouraging the same mentality that was rooted in stereotypes that erected a system that Brown was designed to eradicate.

Why Cosby decided to use what was expected to be an uplifting event to indict an entire group of people will continue to be the subject of great debate. However, amid the morass of stereotypes and rubble of his controversial statements, an issue that warrants further discussion lays quietly — minorities and education.

According to the 2002-2003 American Council on Education (ACE) report on minorities in higher education, from 1998 to 2000, 75.5 percent of African Americans ages 18 to 24 years old completed high school. For that same period, Whites experienced an 87 percent graduation rate. While there is a slight lag regarding overall secondary school graduation rates among Blacks when compared to Whites, gains had been made since Brown.

With respect to postsecondary education, ACE further reported that the number of African Americans enrolled in higher education grew by 5.3 percent from 1999-2000 to 2000-2001. Between 1999-2000 and 2000-2001, African Americans experienced a 6 percent increase in the number of associate’s degrees earned; there was a 3 percent rise in bachelor’s degrees conferred; and a 6.7 percent gain in master’s degrees earned. The unfortunate part of these statistics deals with the gender disparity among African Americans. In 2000-2001, women earning associate’s degrees outnumbered men 65 percent to 35 percent respectively; women earning bachelor’s degrees outnumbered men 61 percent to 39 percent; and women earning master’s degrees outnumbered men 70 percent to 30 percent respectively. Notwithstanding the gender disparity in college attainment among Blacks, overall gains in the area of education have been made.

Given the economic diversity within the Black community, it is inconceivable that only those individuals not belonging to the lower socioeconomic class can claim responsibility for these educational accomplishments. To attempt to dissect these statistics into small neat categories to reflect what percentage can be directly attributed to the endeavors of lower-, middle- and upper-class socioeconomic Blacks would be an arduous task that would serve no real purpose.

The central flaw of Cosby’s analysis is the assumption that educational attainment and socioeconomic status are inextricably intertwined and, therefore, pure predictors of achievement. If one followed his argument to its logical conclusion, one must find that middle-class Blacks do not share the same expressed deficiencies. Similarities in the values of the different economic classes and/or shortcomings blur the artificial and fluid lines of distinction. Are there not many lower-income Blacks who have in common the same values of middle- and upper-class individuals in that they seek to educate their children and impress upon them the importance of education? Are there not some lower-income Blacks who place greater value on education or spiritual development over materialism? Are there not some middle- and upper-class Blacks, who but for their incomes, are similar to lower-income Blacks in that they possess the same negative attributes Cosby opined belonged to the latter? A desire to improve educationally and belonging to a lower economic group are not mutually exclusive conditions. In casting such a wide net, Cosby left little room for the data reflecting continued overall strides among all African Americans.

In the spirit of Brown, we can ill afford to subscribe to this theory of class and achievement and must continue to have faith in the potential of all students, regardless of the possible missteps of their parents. In discussing the accomplishments of any particular group, balance, combined with real data devoid of gross generalizations, should always be the order of the day if legitimacy of the message is sought.

Many recognize that given Cosby’s history of philanthropy and support of institutions of higher education, particularly HBCUs, his words were unlikely intended to be malicious. On the contrary, he should be applauded for his time-honored record of advancing the cause of education. Notwithstanding the timing of his comments, his words have resulted in a welcomed, necessary outcome — a national dialogue of inquiry, beyond the walls of academia, into the status and future of Black students. However, the truth of the matter is that Black students, regardless of the socioeconomic level of their parents, have and will continue to make strides in the area of education and this is the promise and legacy of Brown and should, therefore, be the message.

Lewis Gaskins currently serves as university attorney for Valdosta State University in Georgia.

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