In recent years Dr. Bill Cosby has decried the mediocrity he believes is epidemic among low- and middle-class Blacks, citing poor parenting skills as the root cause of urban violence. Now Cosby is going straight to the source, talking to parents and youth who wield handguns like American Express cards, never leaving home without them. In solidarity with the group Men United for a Better Philadelphia, Cosby recently met with students from the Ready Rap program, which offers mentoring and other social incentives to young men attempting to get back into the school system after incarceration. And late last year he joined Philly rapper Beanie Sigel on a march through the bitterly cold streets of North Philadelphia, a section that has been plagued by drug dealing and numerous homicides. Essence caught up with Cosby after the march to talk about his message of tough love, hope and healing.

On reaching out to at-risk young men:
“I met with 35 boys, ages 13 to 18, who are part of the Ready Rap program, which helps them get a high school diploma. All they have to do is study. But most of them aren’t ready because mentally they have a mantra that is from the streets. It doesn’t take much to pull a trigger or to pull off a stupid robbery. And let us not forget that chronologically a boy may be 16 years old, but could be 4 years old in terms of maturity, because he’s never been taught anything. His character has never been corrected. All these people who stand there and say, ‘There’s too much emphasis on character correction,’ they’re dead wrong. It has to do with character. We’ve got to correct what was taught in the street.”

On parenting our children:
“The most difficult job for parents is to ask questions like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Where are you going?’ I met a teenage boy who sat sleeping [in class]. I went over to him, tapped him, and said, ‘What’s happening, man? Where were you last night?’ He answered, almost with a smile, ‘I was out with a girl until four in the morning.’ He’s just out of jail, sleeping in a class that is set up to help him move on in his life. But his character hasn’t changed. He didn’t get that in the 16 months of incarceration. But I have to also ask, Who’s the girl who will be out until four o’clock in the morning with a guy with no high school diploma who just got out of jail? Where are her parents?”

On why it’s so important to fight for our youth:
“I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m just as sad as everyone else about what’s happening. I’m sad because these kids don’t believe in themselves. I tell them, Boys, girls, you’ve got to make changes in yourself, and if you can’t make a change in yourself, just do one thing. Leave the people alone who are trying to do better. Don’t go around messing with them, telling them they’re traitors. Just wish them well.”

On how mentoring can help stop the violence:
“We must understand how important mentoring is in character development. You don’t have to know a bunch of formulas. All you have to know is character correction. Our young people need to be straightened out. They need to be talked to and talked at. Yes, I’m harsh. And I’m going to continue to be harsh until they stop blowing each other’s brains out. We’ve gotten to the point where we just say, ‘Okay, 392 people are dead.’ The only time people fall down or cry out is at the funeral or maybe at the arraignment. By then it’s simply too late.”

Bill Cosby’s latest book, coauthored with Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, is Come on People: On the Path From Victims to Victors (Thomas Nelson).

Credit: AP Images

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