Best-selling author, acclaimed psychiatrist, visionary management consultant, and noted civil rights leader, Dr. Price M. Cobbs died on June 25, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, of complications related to a heart procedure. He was eighty-nine years old.
Born in Los Angeles on November 2, 1928, Dr. Cobbs was the son of Dr. Peter Price Cobbs and Rosa Mashaw Cobbs. The elder Dr. Cobbs was one of the first practicing Black physicians in Los Angeles, and Mrs. Cobbs was a school teacher. After attending UCLA, son Price received his bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he received his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1958, and was board certified as a psychiatrist in 1966.
In private practice in northern California later in the 1960s, Dr. Cobbs made the acquaintance of another Black psychiatrist, Dr. William H. Grier, and they discussed the fact that there had been no serious study of the plight of Black people in the United States from a trained psychiatric point of view.
The memory of slavery was palpable throughout the Black community. Anti-Black Jim Crow laws were still much in place. It was true that significant changes had been made. President Harry Truman had integrated the armed forces in 1948. The Civil Rights Movement led by Black people themselves had resulted in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the equally potent Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited race-based voting restrictions nationwide. Black people were moving into the work force and other areas of endeavor in ways never before seen.
Nonetheless, Drs. Cobbs and Grier recognized that the realities of the previous 350 years of racist mistreatment had affected the psyches of most Black people. The two physicians set out to write a book that would articulate what those effects were.
The result was Black Rage, published by Basic Books in 1968.
What they intended as “a clinical handbook spelling out in the clearest possible language certain special aspects of the psychiatric treatment of blacks” became an immediate national bestseller. It was the clearest explanation so far of what the authors described as “the essence of what it [means] to be a black American in a nation that [has] reserved…a uniquely disfavored place for its black citizens.” The many individual stories in Black Rage come from every level of Black society, and are uniquely personal and finely written. The psychiatric analysis of each story as provided by Drs. Cobbs and Grier is equally memorable. A follow-up book titled The Jesus Bag was soon on bookstore shelves.
But what about real solutions?
While co-writing Black Rage, Dr. Cobbs had noted the usual call for “a conversation about race” whenever a violent outbreak of racial conflict occurred in some American city. He thought of such “conversations” between Black and white notables as generally quiet and polite. A panel would be named. Some suggestions for the end of racial strife would be made. A few new study groups or panels would be suggested. And in the end, little that led to the resolution of such strife would be accomplished.
Drs. Cobbs and Grier felt that a more direct process was needed. They determined that combative, noisy, and even very aggressive argument about each other between whites and Blacks, in a controlled environment in which physical violence was not permitted, could lead to long-term positive results in the racial divide. The idea was revolutionary and deemed by some critics as literally dangerous. The two physicians, though, believed they were on to something truly important. While in a conference at the Esalen Institute in California in 1967, they developed the structure of racial confrontation groups, a plan that, when implemented and pursued, in fact led to real understanding and what would be lifetime commitments to each other among the groups’ participants.
Dr. Cobbs described one of the breakthroughs that, among many, became routine in such groups.
“The whites, who were almost all professionals, would have a black work partner or two who were also professionals, and who, the whites understood, had clearly faced some kind of discrimination. But surely, they felt, these black people would not have suffered the kinds of anger and rage that a common black man on the street, having come from poverty and Jim Crow, might routinely feel. For the whites in our groups, the understanding that personal rage among black people was universal was eye opening, and very helpful to what we were trying to get to. Such anger is across the board with black people. Everyone.”
Dr. Cobbs formed a company, Pacific Management Systems, that would train white and Black practitioners in the metal health professions to implement such confrontation groups throughout the United States.
Dr. Cobbs became a senior consultant to the Executive Leadership Council, an organization of Black U.S. corporate business executives and entrepreneurs. He recognized that “without executives, managers and employees who can cope with the critical new demands of a diverse workforce, productivity is reduced by tension, polarization, high turnover, litigation, and untapped potential. Productivity is increased in an environment where each employee’s skills and potential are being fully utilized.” With this in mind, Dr. Cobbs set out with the essential purpose of introducing Black people to the middle- and senior-management levels of American corporations, and vice versa. He remained directly active in the endeavor until his passing. In the meantime, Dr. Cobbs also co-authored, with Judith L. Turnock, Cracking The Corporate Code, which details the experiences up the corporate ladder of thirty-two Black executives.
His biographical memoir, My American Life: From Rage to Entitlement, was published in 2005 by Atria Books.
Dr. Cobbs was a member of the National Medical Association and a Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He was a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of The World Academy of Art and Science, as well as a founder of the African American Leadership Institute at the Anderson School of Business at the University of California at Los Angeles. He was a Charter Member of the Urban League, a Life Member of the NAACP, on the Advisory Board of The Black Scholar, and a former member of the Board of Directors of Shared Interest.
Dr. Cobbs is survived by his wife of thirty-three years, Frederica Maxwell Cobbs of San Francisco; his children Renata Cobbs-Fletcher of Philadelphia, and Price Priester Cobbs of San Francisco (whose mother was the late Evadne Priester Cobbs); and his grandchildren Kendall, Kristopher, and David.
Terence Clarke was the lead developmental editor of Dr. Price M. Cobbs’s My American Life: From Rage to Entitlement. His most recent book, the story collection New York, was published in 2017.