Playboy: What do you think is the single most imperative issue that should receive top priority from black legislators?
Cosby: Justice. Police forces and the courts have to be overhauled and improved -- really improved. I no longer expect a white policeman to jump in and protect a black man from being struck by a white, because I think their sense of white brotherhood -- another way of saying racism -- prevents them from identifying with the black or from just remaining objective. Police will turn their heads away when bricks, rocks or fists are thrown at a black man by whites. Not long ago, a white Chicago woman kicked a black man in the behind and punched him in the neck because he wanted Negro kids bused to school; when the guy defended himself against her, the cops arrested him. In that case, as in so many others, law and order protected the white aggressor.
Playboy: Surely you don't think all white cops are racist.
Cosby: Look, let's first talk about what a very difficult thing it is to be a policeman. And let's talk about a policeman who is straight, who goes about his job with an open mind. But because he's a cop, he's got a problem, because he is being judged the way we black people don't like to be judged; in other words, when you see a policeman, he's a cop. And if he's a white cop, he has a white family and he identifies with white people; cops aren't machines, you know, when it comes to race relations.
Playboy: Is there any way you see that white cops and black people could begin getting along better?
Cosby: I think relations would improve if a scientist could invent a mechanized helmet cops could wear, which would see to it that they enforced the law equally for all and which would get them working to wipe out crime and corruption in every part of society. Then the policeman would really be the upholder of law and order; he'd be a fighter for justice; he'd be what we want him to be -- Batman. But a cop can't command a neighborhood's respect when he accepts bribes that range from petty cash to some fairly heavy bread.
Playboy: Wouldn't police forgo bribes if cities raised their salaries; and wouldn't they be better equipped to deal with black people if they were also required to have special schooling in community relations?
Cosby: Sure, but a better answer for me is to put black cops in black neighborhoods. Black cops may be hated as much or even more than white cops by a lot of people in the ghetto, but I still think it's advisable for at least two reasons: Kids could grow up seeing black men in positions of authority, and ghetto streets wouldn't wind up in charge of a scared white cat who thinks the answer to problems is to hit people in the head because he's "tired of letting them get away with it," which is how white cops talk among themselves. Listen, if a guy doesn't want to be arrested by the police, it's easy for two cops to get the cat into a car without punching and beating on him with a night stick. I once saw a policeman stop a harmless old black drunk who was mouthing off at him, and the cop just punched him out. Now, this to me is not law enforcement, because I don't think a guy learns anything when he's beaten up -- except to hate. He certainly doesn't learn respect for the law; and when he gets to court, if he has any respect for the law left, the judges finish that off.
Playboy: Are you saying that the courts are prejudiced?
Cosby: Cats with dough don't commit armed robbery or most of the crimes poor people commit. Yet rich guys' crimes -- like embezzling a bank or moving a million dollars' worth of heroin a year -- hurt a hell of a lot more people than some guy who sticks up a candy store and gets away with $12; so I think something's a little wrong there. When the rich man comes to court, he's got the best lawyers money can buy. But the poor man, the black man, gets a lawyer who's not necessarily interested in the case and may even consider it a pain in the ass. And then there's the whole thing about under-the-table payoffs to judges, which I won't attempt to document but which exist. What I'm saying is that there are two kinds of justice in this country: one for the rich and one for the poor -- and blacks are poor. When the black people keep getting shafted by cops and courts, how can they have respect for people who are supposed to represent the law? So justice is first on my list. After that, I think white people will have to show us they believe that a policy of segregation is wrong -- and that'll mean giving the black man an equal shot at decent housing, jobs and education.
Playboy: You say segregation is wrong, yet many civil rights groups now restrict their membership to blacks only. If whites want to help and are rejected by Negroes, where do you suggest they go?
Cosby: Into their own communities to teach their own people what they feel.
Playboy: Doesn't that still add up to turning away committed whites?
Cosby: All the unkept promises and half-truths of whites to blacks have resulted in a great deal of justifiable distrust. I think it's right for the black man to be in charge of his own organizations, even at the risk of alienating white friends; if those white friends resent that, I wonder about the sincerity of those friendships. But I'm not really worried about black bigotry, because it started only recently, when we finally understood that it was impossible to live anywhere in America without encountering racism. As soon as some real progress is made, it'll be hard to find a black bigot, because the black man won't have the time to be hating anyone. He'll be too busy going after that trade apprenticeship or skilled job.
Playboy: Do you feel that the present generation of young whites is at odds with its parents on the race issue?
Cosby: I think that the white college radicals we read so much about are a very tiny percentage of the young people. Most white kids grow up listening to their parents call black kids niggers, and they learn to do the same thing, and quickly. Which is why I think white kids who want to help black people should work in their own communities. Blacks don't have a chance to wipe out the ignorance that's responsible for a lot of prejudice.
Playboy: In line with that thought, a recent poll indicated that most white people believe there's no real difference in the way they grow up and the way blacks grow up -- and conclude that blacks themselves are totally responsible for all their social and economic problems. Do you think that if whites had more information about actual ghetto conditions, racial harmony would improve?
Cosby: It couldn't do any harm, but I find it hard to believe that white people don't know what life is like for the average American black. If a white guy sat down and objectively thought about the situation for a minute, how could he possibly think that blacks are growing up the same way he grew up? Did his mother have to pay more than $200 for a couch that costs white people $125? A guy in the slums buys a car for $150 and has to pay $400 a year insurance on it. The ghetto supermarkets sell food you can't find anywhere else; did you ever eat green meat and green bread? How many winters have white people spent with rats scurrying around their apartments at night, with windows boarded up but not keeping out the cold, and with no heat? Try to get a ghetto slumlord to fix up an apartment and you'll know what frustration and bitterness is.
Playboy: Haven't a number of city governments begun cracking down on slumlords?
Cosby: Yes, but it doesn't do any good. It's fine to have a law on the books, but what good is it if a slumlord can get around it? If he can pay a city official $150 or $500 a year to keep his mouth shut when inspection time comes around, the law is worth nothing. And if the landlord is prosecuted, he'll hand money under the table to someone higher up than the city inspector. Or maybe he won't even bother to bribe anyone; after all, what difference will it make whether he spends $200 bribing a cat or paying that amount in the form of a fine? Here, again, black people wind up powerless, because they have no capital.
Playboy: Then you advocate black capitalism?
Cosby: That's right. I think whites should begin to understand how personally destructive poverty is. Drive through Harlem sometime; if a cat's got no bread, he's just not going to look good. He'll look bad enough not having a job and having no money coming in; but if he comes out of a one-room apartment with three or four brothers, and his father has no job, how can he possibly look good? And when you're poor, nobody wants to have anything to do with you. This used to happen to me, even among black people. Before I became "somebody," I had my problems getting dates with girls. I had black girls reject me because I had only a glen-plaid suit and striped shirt and striped tie to wear on a date; that was all I owned in the way of dress-up clothing. That was all I could afford. There's a whole string of chicks in Philadelphia who are bread-conscious and turned me loose because I was hoping to become a schoolteacher, which would have given them a cat who was making $130 a week -- if he made it through college. Chicks would put that down: "Schoolteacher? Nope, you're not in my bracket." There's probably girls today think, "Gee, I could have had him and I let him go. I sold Bill Cosby short at $12, and now he's $432 a share. Damn!" The point is: The poorer you are, the uglier you are. And that poverty creeps into every part of black people's lives: poor education, poor housing, poor sanitation, poor medical care and, as a result of all these, poor jobs. When society keeps on showing that it's more interested in property rights than in human rights, the result is looting and riots.