- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bill Cosby can be a very funny guy, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A heckler in a wheelchair found that out the hard way after shouting at the actor-comedian May 16 at the University of the District of Columbia, the latest of about 20 cities to host a free “A Call Out with Bill Cosby” forum for black parents and community leaders.

Two years almost to the day had passed since Mr. Cosby caused a national sensation in this town with his blunt statements on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education about the problems low-income black folks bring upon themselves.

How blunt were his statements? Allow me 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 — same woman. … 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 Mr. Cosby’s pitch for black self-reliance delighted conservative talk show hosts like pornography in the hands of teenage boys. Reaction from black Americans were as diverse as we are. I, for one, agree with Mr. Cosby’s general sentiments, as I think most black Americans do, though most of us would have chosen more polite words to express them.

The mostly black crowd at the District’s university was distinctly on Mr. Cosby’s side. Through two two-hour sessions, Mr. Cosby 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 named the city’s “Foster Parent of the Year.”

As I pondered how sad it is that the problems of our communities receive so much more media attention than the solutions quietly offered by everyday heroes like the folks on Mr. Cosby’s panel, conflict erupted. 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 steamed 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 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, scholarships and countless 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 to a book only helps to sell the book.

That’s too bad, since I think Mr. Dyson’s view of Mr. Cosby reveals another curious version of elitism, a version I think 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 versus 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 who have been 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 is helping the rest of us to find both. That’s a good start.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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