Bill Cosby can be a very funny guy, but he does not suffer fools gladly.
A heckler found that out the hard way after shouting at the actor-comedian last week during a forum at the University of the District of Columbia, the latest of about 20 cities to host a free "Call Out with Bill Cosby" symposium for black parents and community leaders.
Two years had passed since Mr. Cosby caused a national uproar over his blunt statements in this town, on the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, about the problems low-income black folks bring upon themselves. How blunt were his statements? Allow me to refresh your memory:
"We've got these knuckleheads walking around who don't want to learn English."
"In the neighborhoods that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. ... These people are fighting hard to be ignorant."
"Five and six different children ... pretty soon you're going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you're making love to."
It is no surprise that Mr. Cosby's pitch for black self-reliance delighted conservative talk-show hosts. Black Americans expressed a range of reactions as diverse as we are. I, for one, agree with Mr. Cosby's general sentiments, as I think most black Americans do, although many of us would have chosen more polite words to express them.
The mostly black crowd at the university last week was on Mr. Cosby's side. Through two two-hour sessions, he coaxed poignant stories of violence, abuse, self-reliance and redemption from his panel members, who included educators, family court experts and a mother of adopted children who was named the city's "Foster Parent of the Year."
The heckler, whom news reports called "a self-described community activist," started shouting from the audience. He derided Mr. Cosby's "watered-down dialogue" and demanded answers to Michael Eric Dyson's highly publicized book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?
That's when Mr. Cosby lost his cool. The 68-year-old former college athlete jumped off the stage, wireless microphone in hand, and raced up the aisle to loom over his somewhat astonished questioner. "I'm sick of you and your Dyson," Mr. Cosby declared. "Dyson is not a truthful man."
In a backstage interview with me and another journalist, Mr. Cosby scoffed at the "elitist" charge coming from Mr. Dyson, a black professor at the ritzy University of Pennsylvania. "And how much does it cost to go there [to Penn]?" taunted Mr. Cosby, who attended Philadelphia's less-elite-but-still-proud Temple University on a track-and-field scholarship.
"How many black students do they have at Penn?" he continued. If Mr. Dyson taught at a school like the University of the District of Columbia that serves mostly lower-income nonwhites, Mr. Cosby said, "then maybe he could talk."
I don't blame Mr. Cosby for feeling steamed. He and his wife, Camille, have given millions to colleges, scholarship funds and worthy individuals. Still, he gets the "elitist" rap. I, too, might blow my stack.
Still, Mr. Dyson must be delighted. As the attacks against The Da Vinci Code have shown us, overreaction helps book sales.
That's too bad, because Mr. Dyson's view of Mr. Cosby reveals another curious version of elitism, a version that is shared too widely in left-progressive intellectual circles. Institutional racism is still a problem, as Mr. Dyson repeatedly reminds us, but African-Americans will not defeat it through political agitation and legislation alone. We also need to employ the same basic tools that have brought success to countless black families during far worse racial times than these: education, hard work, strong families and high moral standards.
The debate between black self-help and outside help is an old one in black America, but it is a false choice. Black America needs to look not for what's right or what's left, but to what works in our drive to liberate those left behind by the civil rights revolution.
Mr. Cosby doesn't have all of the answers. He doesn't even have all of the facts. But he's helping the rest of us to find both. That's a good start.