Emory Report
February 7, 2005
Volume 61, Number 18


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February 7, 2005
Hearing Cosby's call: Franklin responds

BY Eric Rangus

Criticism last year of segments of the African American community by comedian Bill Cosby formed the basis of the latest installment of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion’s Family Forum Series.

Robert Franklin, Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics and CISR senior fellow, addressed “Cosby’s Call and Our Response: What the Church and Community Should Do” in front of a full house in Gambrell Hall’s Tull Auditorium, Wednesday, Feb. 2.

“Our purpose is to consider a response to Bill Cosby’s recent campaign to revive a culture of personal and parental responsibility, especially in poor communities,” Franklin said.

Last May at a NAACP gala in Washington’s Constitution Hall commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Cosby criticized many African Americans in poverty who are “not holding up their end.” He acknowledged a social contact where the haves work on behalf of the have-nots to improve their situations. However, he said, the have-nots must put forth a decent effort to take advantage of available paths out of poverty, Cosby said.

“They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English,” the Washington Post quoted Cosby as saying. “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.” Cosby addressed this same subject in subsequent public appearances.

“Relatively few parents are guilty of the behavior Cosby has targeted,” said Franklin, who CISR co-director John Witte called “one of the intellectual treasures of this University campus.” Franklin is former president of the Atlanta-based Interdenominational Theological Society, and his research at Emory is part of CISR’s “The Child in Law, Religion and Society” project.

“A majority of people and families living in poverty make good decisions and rear children well,” Franklin continued. “But ultimately we must demand and design policies and practices that support people who make an honest effort to live better.”

Franklin delivered some of his own observations on African American institutions. Currently working on a book tentatively titled Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope to African American Communities, Franklin addressed the state of black churches, black colleges, nonprofit organizations and black families. He said each is facing a crisis of its own. Black churches must look at their missions as they are torn between serving the poor and being what Franklin called “user-friendly institutions for their upwardly mobile ‘paying customers.’”

Black colleges are facing a crisis of purpose as the best and brightest black students are increasingly recruited by majority institutions. Civil rights and nonprofit organizations face an identity crisis as they engage in new cultural struggles often with outdated weapons. Franklin also said the black family faces a “crisis of commitment” as the non-marital birth rate in African American communities is around 69 percent.

“The crises faced by these anchor institutions of our community only exacerbate the social distance and despair our neighbors who live in poverty experience,” Franklin said. “I’m suggesting that Cosby has vented his frustration over the visible symptoms of a larger, largely hidden cultural and institutional crisis.”

Franklin criticized the silence of other prominent African Americans who have been mostly silent on the issues Cosby raised. “Why didn’t these themes occupy the body of the annual addresses of major civil rights leaders and denominational presidents and bishops?” he asked. “Why didn’t socially conscious disc jockeys blast through radio waves to ask tough questions about where we are headed?”

Responding directly to Cosby’s call, Franklin said the first two steps must be to reduce the country’s prison population and to promote healthy marriage. “I think we need to begin a village-wide conversation about the future and especially the bedrock institution of the family,” Franklin said. “Not just in the black community, but in all of our villages.”