More than a decade ago, Bill Cosby shocked many of the comedian’s longtime admirers with a lengthy speech excoriating the black poor for failing to live up to the promise of the civil rights movement. Given at a 2004 NAACP event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the decision striking down segregated public schools, Cosby mixed a familiar message of black empowerment with a palpable disgust for what he described as black lower-class norms and behavior.
The speech, which came to be known as the “Pound Cake Speech,” launched a second career for Cosby as a social critic who found supporters both on the American right and within the black community for his message that the black community’s real obstacles to social advancement were personal and cultural and could not be blamed on white racism.
Ironically, it was Cosby’s decision to hold himself up as a moral exemplar that would bring to light Cosby’s admission that he obtained drugs for “young women he wanted to have sex with.” A judge unsealed documents in a decade-old lawsuit in part because of Cosby’s role as a “public moralist.”
The Pound Cake Speech was both an act of shaming and a tribute to the power of shame. More than 10 years later, it is now Cosby who finds himself an object of profound shame for those who trusted and believed in him.
But the Pound Cake Speech itself was never the grand manifesto it was made out to be. Taking a look back at the speech 11 years later in light of what we now know about Cosby, the speech is rife not only with inaccuracies and flawed premises, but immeasurable hypocrisy. What follows is a detailed, but by no means exhaustive, annotation of The Pound Cake Speech.
COSBY: Ladies and gentlemen, I really have to ask you to seriously consider what you’ve heard, and now this is the end of the evening so to speak. I heard a prize fight manager say to his fellow who was losing badly, “David, listen to me. It’s not what’s he’s doing to you. It’s what you’re not doing. (laughter).
Ladies and gentlemen, these people set, they opened the doors, they gave us the right, and today, ladies and gentlemen, in our cities and public schools we have fifty percent drop out. In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. (clapping) No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child (clapping).
“They opened the doors”
The doors were open after Brown v. Board of Education, but only very briefly. Desegregation orders ensured 90 percent of black children were attending desegregated schools by the 1970s, but white flight and legal opposition quickly reversed those gains. By 2004, about three million black children were attending hyper-segregated schools in which 90 percent or more students were minorities, according to ProPublica . Three years later, in 2007, a Supreme Court ruling sharply curtailed the ability of schools to consider race when trying to diversify public schools.
“Fifty percent drop out”
The black high school dropout rate in 2004, when this speech was given, was about 13 percent, not 50 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Today it is eight percent, a historic low.
COSBY: Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic and lower middle economic people are holding their end in this deal. In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. (clapping) In the old days, you couldn’t hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye (laughing). And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had one and where you got it from. Parents don’t know that today.
“In the old days”
Bill Cosby was born in Philadelphia in 1937, to working class parents. Whatever else might be said about parenting back then, none of it prevented Cosby from doing the things he admitted to doing in the recently unsealed deposition.
Also Cosby’s wealth did not prevent him from engaging in the behavior he acknowledged in his deposition. It did however, shield him from the consequences for a very long time.
COSBY: I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? (clapping) Where were you when he was twelve? (clapping) Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? (clapping) And where is his father, and why don’t you know where he is? And why doesn’t the father show up to talk to this boy?
“Where is his father”
Although black fathers are less likely to live in the home, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control, by some measures black non-coresidential fathers are more likely to be involved in their children’s lives than non-coresidential white or Hispanic fathers.
COSBY: The church is only open on Sunday. And you can’t keep asking Jesus to ask doing things for you (clapping). You can’t keep asking that God will find a way. God is tired of you (clapping and laughing). God was there when they won all those cases. 50 in a row. That’s where God was because these people were doing something. And God said, “I’m going to find a way.” I wasn’t there when God said it… I’m making this up (laughter). But it sounds like what God would do (laughter).
We cannot blame white people. White people (clapping) … white people don’t live over there. They close up the shop early. The Korean ones still don’t know us as well…they stay open 24 hours (laughter).
“We cannot blame white people”
White people do not have to live in proximity to black people to benefit from the legacy of centuries of discrimination or for black people to suffer because of it. Cosby is also invoking the stereotype that the stores in black neighborhoods are owned by Korean Americans.
COSBY: I’m looking and I see a man named Kenneth Clark. He and his wife Mamie…Kenneth’s still alive. I have to apologize to him for these people because Kenneth said it straight. He said you have to strengthen yourselves…and we’ve got to have that black doll. And everybody said it. Julian Bond said it. Dick Gregory said it. All these lawyers said it. And you wouldn’t know that anybody had done a damned thing.
50 percent drop out rate, I’m telling you, and people in jail, and women having children by five, six different men. Under what excuse, I want somebody to love me, and as soon as you have it, you forget to parent. Grandmother, mother, and great grandmother in the same room, raising children, and the child knows nothing about love or respect of any one of the three of them (clapping). All this child knows is “gimme, gimme, gimme.” These people want to buy the friendship of a child….and the child couldn’t care less. Those of us sitting out here who have gone on to some college or whatever we’ve done, we still fear our parents (clapping and laughter). And these people are not parenting. They’re buying things for the kid. $500 sneakers, for what? They won’t buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics. (clapping)
“50 percent drop out rate”
As noted above, the black dropout rate in 2004 was around 13 percent, not 50 percent. He’s 37 points off.
“and women having children by five, six different men”
The black out of wedlock birthrate had plummeted dramatically by the time this speech was given.
“Grandmother, mother, and great grandmother in the same room, raising children, and the child knows nothing about love or respect of any one of the three of them”
Bill Cosby, who stands accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women and has acknowledged wanting to use quaaludes on women “for sex,” is lecturing the children of the black poor on how they fail to properly appreciate the women in their lives.
“And these people are not parenting. They’re buying things for the kid. $500 sneakers, for what? They won’t buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics”
Economists have found that poor blacks and Latinos do tend to spend more on “consumption” than whites as a form of status signaling, but the reasons for that are complicated and closely tied to residential segregation. When white families are placed in similar economic and residential circumstances, they tend to spend money in the same way.
COSBY: Kenneth Clark, somewhere in his home in upstate New York…just looking ahead. Thank God, he doesn’t know what’s going on, thank God. But these people, the ones up here in the balcony fought so hard. Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, “The cops shouldn’t have shot him” What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? (laughter and clapping). I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else (laughter) And I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said if get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother. Not you’re going to get your butt kicked. No. You’re going to embarrass your mother. You’re going to embarrass your family.
“People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake!”
Police are agents of the state empowered to use lethal force to protect the people, so it makes sense that people are upset when lethal force is unnecessarily used and people die something that tends to happen far more often with black men than everyone else. Black men are 21 times more likely than white men to be shot by police.
It also seems strange, given the seriousness of the allegations against Cosby and his own admission that he drugged women with quaaludes, that he is intimating here that a death sentence is an appropriate response to petty theft.
This line is also where the speech, known as “The Pound Cake Speech” gets its name.
“You’re going to embarrass your mother. You’re going to embarrass your family”
Cosby’s attorneys argued against the release of the legal documents that showed Cosby admitting to drugging women with quaaludes because they would be embarrassing.
COSBY: If knock that girl up, you’re going to have to run away because it’s going to be too embarrassing for your family. In the old days, a girl getting pregnant had to go down South, and then her mother would go down to get her. But the mother had the baby. I said the mother had the baby. The girl didn’t have a baby. The mother had the baby in two weeks. (laughter) We are not parenting. Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people, they are showing you what’s wrong. People putting their clothes on backwards. –isn’t that a sign of something going on wrong? (laughter)
“If knock that girl up, you’re going to have to run away because it’s going to be too embarrassing for your family”
As noted above, out of wedlock births among black women had declined dramatically by 2004.
COSBY: Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up (laughter and clapping). Isn’t it a sign of something when she’s got her dress all the way up to the crack…and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body. What part of Africa did this come from? (laughter). We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans, they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail. (When we give these kinds names to our children, we give them the strength and inspiration in the meaning of those names. What’s the point of giving them strong names if there is not parenting and values backing it up).
“Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack”
This is a key tenet of respectability politics, the idea that black people can overcome systemic problems through individual changes in behavior. If you dress or talk a certain way you’re more likely not only to be seen as a criminal but to be one, while the reverse is also true. This is why Cosby is mentioning style choices in the same breath as violent crime, because respectability politics holds the two as incontrovertibly linked.
Of course parents didn’t think much of how kids dressed back in Cosby’s day either.
“With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail”
Who would think that black kid with an African name could amount to anything?
COSBY: Brown Versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. We’ve got to take the neighborhood back (clapping). We’ve got to go in there. Just forget telling your child to go to the Peace Corps. It’s right around the corner. (laughter) It’s standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. It doesn’t want to speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk. “Why you ain’t where you is go, ra,” I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk (laughter). Then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with “why you ain’t…” You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. There is no Bible that has that kind of language. Where did these people get the idea that they’re moving ahead on this. Well, they know they’re not, they’re just hanging out in the same place, five or six generations sitting in the projects when you’re just supposed to stay there long enough to get a job and move out.
“Brown Versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. We’ve got to take the neighborhood back”
By 2004 school desegregation had largely been defeated, not because of how black people dress or talk, but because of political opposition to desegregation, largely from white people.
“Well, they know they’re not, they’re just hanging out in the same place, five or six generations sitting in the projects when you’re just supposed to stay there long enough to get a job and move out”
Housing segregation in the United States is the fruit of generations of public policy designed to prevent black people from doing precisely what Cosby is saying they should do.
COSBY: Now look, I’m telling you. It’s not what they’re doing to us. It’s what we’re not doing. 50 percent drop out. Look, we’re raising our own ingrown immigrants. These people are fighting hard to be ignorant. There’s no English being spoken, and they’re walking and they’re angry. Oh God, they’re angry and they have pistols and they shoot and they do stupid things. And after they kill somebody, they don’t have a plan. Just murder somebody. Boom. Over what? A pizza? And then run to the poor cousin’s house. They sit there and the cousin says “what are you doing here?” “I just killed somebody, man.” “What?” “I just killed somebody, I’ve got to stay here.” “No, you don’t.” “Well, give me some money, I’ll go…” “Where are you going?” “North Carolina.” Everybody wanted to go to North Carolina. But the police know where you’re going because your cousin has a record.
“50 percent drop out”
The black dropout rate was around 13 percent in 2004, not 50 percent. The number of women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault is approaching 50.
“Oh God, they’re angry and they have pistols and they shoot and they do stupid things”
Violent crime in the black community is still a serious problem, but black arrest rates for violent crime had also declined sharply by the time this speech was given. That is rarely acknowledged because it undermines the idea of a black community spiralling further into self-destructive cultural pathology that is beyond any outside force’s ability to change.
“I just killed somebody, man.” “What?” “I just killed somebody, I’ve got to stay here”
The black homicide rate is much higher than the white homicide rate, and remains a serious problem. But as with the dropout rate and the out of wedlock pregnancy rate, it was declining significantly by the time Cosby gave this speech, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
COSBY: Five or six different children, same woman, eight, ten different husbands or whatever, pretty soon you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to. You don’t who this is. It might be your grandmother. (laughter) I’m telling you, they’re young enough. Hey, you have a baby when you’re twelve. Your baby turns thirteen and has a baby, how old are you? Huh? Grandmother. By the time you’re twelve, you could have sex with your grandmother, you keep those numbers coming. I’m just predicting.
“pretty soon you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to”
Cosby has been married since 1964, long before most if not all of the alleged assaults—which are in the dozens at this point—took place.
I’m saying Brown Vs. Board of Education. We’ve got to hit the streets, ladies and gentlemen. I’m winding up, now , no more applause. I’m saying, look at the Black Muslims. There are Black Muslims standing on the street corners and they say so forth and so on, and we’re laughing at them because they have bean pies and all that, but you don’t read “Black Muslim gunned down while chastising drug dealer.” You don’t read that. They don’t shoot down Black Muslims. You understand me. Muslims tell you to get out of the neighborhood. When you want to clear your neighborhood out, first thing you do is go get the Black Muslims, bean pies and all (laughter). And your neighborhood is then clear. The police can’t do it.
“They don’t shoot down Black Muslims. You understand me. Muslims tell you to get out of the neighborhood”
Mohammed, one of the “crap” names Cosby complained about poor black parents giving their kids, is a very popular Muslim name.
COSBY: I’m telling you Christians, what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you hit the streets? Why can’t you clean it out yourselves? It’s our time now, ladies and gentlemen. It is our time (clapping). And I’ve got good news for you. It’s not about money. It’s about you doing something ordinarily that we do—get in somebody else’s business. It’s time for you to not accept the language that these people are speaking, which will take them nowhere. What the hell good is Brown V. Board of Education if nobody wants it?
“What the hell good is Brown V. Board of Education if nobody wants it”
According to a 2013 study by Rice University, black people are more likely than everyone else (90 percent) to believe that post-high school education is important. Blacks across the income spectrum are also far more likely to say they want to go back to school for further education, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
Andrea Constand, a woman who sued Cosby in 2005 saying he drugged and raped her, testified that after the fact Cosby offered her money to pay for college, but only if she maintained a 3.0 grade point average. So Cosby didn’t just condescend to poor black people on the value of education, Constand claims he also did it to her after raping her.
COSBY: What is it with young girls getting after some girl who wants to still remain a virgin. Who are these sick black people and where did they come from and why haven’t they been parented to shut up? To go up to girls and try to get a club where “you are nobody..,” this is a sickness ladies and gentlemen and we are not paying attention to these children. These are children. They don’t know anything. They don’t have anything. They’re homeless people. All they know how to do is beg. And you give it to them, trying to win their friendship. And what are they good for? And then they stand there in an orange suit and you drop to your knees, “(crying sound) He didn’t do anything, he didn’t do anything.” Yes, he did do it. And you need to have an orange suit on too (laughter, clapping).
“What is it with young girls getting after some girl who wants to still remain a virgin. Who are these sick black people and where did they come from and why haven’t they been parented to shut up”
Bill Cosby lectured poor black girls about peer pressuring other girls into having sex. Not only is this behavior not confined to poor black children, but this is coming from someone who knew that he had obtained drugs to use on “young women he wanted to have sex with.”
“And you need to have an orange suit on too”
Cosby, a man who stands accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women, is implying that poor black parents should be in prison for not raising their children correctly.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for the award (big laughter) and giving me an opportunity to speak because, I mean, this is the future, and all of these people who lined up and done..they’ve got to be wondering what the hell happened. Brown V. Board of Education, these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English (clapping) I know that you all know it. I just want to get you as angry that you ought to be. When you walk around the neighborhood and you see this stuff, that stuff’s not funny. These people are not funny anymore. And that ‘s not brother. And that’s not my sister. They’re faking and they’re dragging me way down because the state, the city and all these people have to pick up the tab on them because they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education.
“they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education.”
If anything, as noted above, studies suggest black people value education more than other groups. And that makes sense, since if you don’t have a lot of money or advantages, the belief that you can improve your socioeconomic status through education becomes even more important.
COSBY: We have to begin to build in the neighborhood, have restaurants, have cleaners, have pharmacies, have real estate, have medical buildings instead of trying to rob them all. And so, ladies and gentlemen, please, Dorothy Height, where ever she’s sitting, she didn’t do all that stuff so that she could hear somebody say “I can’t stand algebra, I can’t stand…and “what you is.” It’s horrible.
“…build in the neighborhood, have restaurants, have cleaners, have pharmacies, have real estate, have medical buildings instead of trying to rob them all”
This is a pretty boilerplate black self-empowerment message with the added implication that the reason black neighborhoods lack resources is because black people can’t stop stealing. As stated above, public policy is at the root of the economic woes of impoverished black neighborhoods, but it’s also important to note that property crime arrests had dropped dramatically by the time Cosby had given this speech, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
COSBY: Basketball players, multimillionaires can’t write a paragraph. Football players, multimillionaires, can’t read. Yes. Multimillionaires. Well, Brown V Board of Education, where are we today? It’s there. They paved the way. What did we do with it. The white man, he’s laughing, got to be laughing. 50 percent drop out, rest of them in prison.
“The white man, he’s laughing, got to be laughing. 50 percent drop out, rest of them in prison”
Cosby is again exaggerating the black dropout rate, which at the time was 13 percent, not 50 percent. This also sounds a bit like an invocation of the myth that there are black men in prison than in college.
At any rate mass incarceration, like segregation, is the result of conscious public policy decisions that affected blacks far more than whites. For example, even though blacks do drugs at similar rates to whites, and whites are more likely to deal drugs, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for drug related crimes according to a study from Brookings.
COSBY: You got to tell me that if there was parenting, help me, if there was parenting, he wouldn’t have picked up the Coca Cola bottle and walked out with it to get shot in the back of the head. He wouldn’t have. Not if he loved his parents. And not if they were parenting! Not if the father would come home. Not if the boy hadn’t dropped the sperm cell inside of the girl and the girl had said, “No, you have to come back here and be the father of this child.” Not “I don’t have to.”
Therefore, you have the pile up of these sweet beautiful things born by nature raised by no one. Give them presents. You’re raising pimps. That’s what a pimp is. A pimp will act nasty to you so you have to go out and get them something. And then you bring it back and maybe he or she hugs you. And that’s why pimp is so famous. They’ve got a drink called the “Pimpsomething.” You all wonder what that’s about, don’t you? Well, you’re probably going to let Jesus figure it out for you (laughter).
“You’re raising pimps. That’s what a pimp is. A pimp will act nasty to you so you have to go out and get them something. And then you bring it back and maybe he or she hugs you. And that’s why pimp is so famous.”
Given Cosby’s verbal abuse of the black community writ large, this passage becomes an interesting if inadvertent commentary on Cosby’s dimming but enduring prominence.
COSBY: Well, I’ve got something to tell you about Jesus. When you go to the church, look at the stained glass things of Jesus. Look at them. Is Jesus smiling? Not in one picture. So, tell your friends. Let’s try to do something. Let’s try to make Jesus smile. Let’s start parenting.
Thank you, thank you (clapping, cheers).
“Let’s start parenting.”
Cliff Huxtable is not a real person. Given what we know about him now, no one should take parenting advice from Bill Cosby.
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