Michael Richards' Racist Remarks

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For those who don't know, Michael Richards has gotten in trouble recently for making some pretty racist comments in his stand-up act. His apology on Letterman is also worth watching. There's a bit of it out of context at the end of the first clip, but it's worth watching the whole thing for the full context. The press has been selecting clips from it out of context, in a way that I think masks his general tenor. It takes some offhand comments as if they are the main thrust of his apology.

Now what he did was thoroughly despicable, and to his credit he admits that and has apologized. Some people have been claiming that it's not really an apology, but it most certainly is. He apologized for his actions. John McWhorter thinks it's just a case of his being sorry that it happened rather than the sincere apology that I thought it came across as. Carmen Van Kerckhove at Racialicious thinks the fact that it's just an apology for his actions without reference to what underlying attitudes the words expressed shows that he must have a deep attitude of resentment against black people for having achieved equality, thus preventing him from getting away with lynching them. I'm not sure I agree with either of these claims.

Here's a possible interpretation of his actions and what motivated them that doesn't involve the kind of racist attitudes assumed in those two responses (although it's not free from racism of a different sort). Isn't it possible that he was just willing to use a racial dynamic in a pretty immoral way to say hurtful things whose content he doesn't actually agree with? People do often say hurtful things they don't agree with when they're mad at someone and want the person to feel hurt. I'm not sure how we can rule out that possibility here by assuming that he really does long for the days of segregation and lynching. Maybe he does, but the fact that he said these things doesn't show that he does. It just shows that he's willing to speak as if he does, but that may just be to achieve a hurtful effect in others by relying on a racial power dynamic.

It still makes what he did pretty evil, and it does show that he's able to think of racist words and references at the slightest sign of black people disrespecting his comedy routine. But I don't think it shows that he's literally longing for the days of segregation and lynchings, as I keep seeing people assert (see Carmen's post, the comments there, and the links to other commentary on race blogs). I just think it's a bad idea to attribute certain emotions or views to him that may or may not be true, when there are alternative interpretations that are pretty plausible.

Update: See also Laurence Thomas' comments on this.

Update 2: Laurence has another post, this time comparing Michael Richards with Mel Gibson.

7 Comments

People's responses to an event/person like this (action-apology) often says more about them than the event/person. It is not that making judgments is wrong, but their judgment doesn't seem to apply accurately to the situation. Jesus told us to judge with a right judgment (Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment. John 7:24).

When I heard about the situation, my first take was similar to yours. In his upset he sought out the most hurtful thing he could say in response to that particular group of hecklers. If they had been a different group (fat/Latino/take your pick) the tirade might have been just as vicious to their sensitivities.

I think his problem is more with a willingness to act viciously and out of control, when being put down while doing something he has invested himself in, than specific racism, per se.

In closing, we are all *ist (pick the ism) somewhere about something. Some of the *ist problems are real, some are PC BS, but we ALL have them. Some of the most racist people I have ever met are minorities who wallpaper over their racism with justification excuses.

The sad thing is that we often fail to remember that as Christians, every other Christian is our blood and bone brother, one with us in Christ, so it is high time everyone on every side of the fence began acting accordingly.

That he would do it in this way is a kind of racism, even if his motivation is as I suggested. It doesn't mean it's not racism. It's just not the particular kind of racism that others have suggested, i.e. actual commitment to white supremacist ideology that he's just been hiding for all these years. I don't think this is very strong evidence for that.

Hey guys, a few quick questions:

1. Are you non-black?

2. Has a black person ever made you mad?

3. Did you respond by making lynching references?

4. If not, why?

I mean, really. There are about a million different insulting things he could have said to them that indicated that he was mad. He didn't have to refer to lynching. He didn't have to call them THAT. Out of the depths of the heart, the mouth speaks. In the depths of his heart, I find racism.

He says he's not racist. He would know before anyone else. How would you like to be told why you do the things you do?

1. Yes
2. Yes, I get upset at my wife all the time, and there are plenty of other black people I've known who have occasionally made me mad.
3. No, why would I?
4. Because it would be much more immoral than the immoral ways I respond when my wife makes me mad. Also, most times I've been mad at black people they've been people I've known. One key element of this episode is that he didn't know them. I doubt he would've done this if he had known them well, and I doubt he would have done it if he'd been offstage also.

I mean, really. There are about a million different insulting things he could have said to them that indicated that he was mad. He didn't have to refer to lynching. He didn't have to call them THAT. Out of the depths of the heart, the mouth speaks. In the depths of his heart, I find racism.

Read the Laurence Thomas post I linked to. He gives some good arguments for why it's unlikely that this is finally a revelation of something that's been buried for years. He is black, by the way.

For the record, I didn't say it wasn't racism. All I said is that it need not be the kind of racism people have been saying it is, i.e. a white supremacist ideology that he's been keeping hidden all these years. Read the conversation in the comments on Carmen's post for a fuller description of my view on this.

He says he's not racist. He would know before anyone else. How would you like to be told why you do the things you do?

There's something to this, but there's also something very wrong about it. On one level, it is pretty disturbing that people would be attributing to him views he may not have. I would think he would be aware of what his consciously held, deliberate views are. He does claim not to be a racist, and I'm sure he means that he does not hold to an official racist ideology. I believe him on that, although one problem with your argument is that he could be lying. Even if he knows his views, it is indeed possible to pretend you don't have views that you know you have.

The other problem with what you're saying is that that's not the only kind of racism. There is attitudinal racism, in which someone actually has negative attitudes toward everyone or most people of another race merely because they belong to that race. That's not the same as white supremacist ideology. There's also residual racism, when someone who has neither of the above still has negative responses to people of another race (or of one's own) merely because of their race, often in ways the person thinks are immoral and wants to overcome but sometimes merely in ways they can't detect. There's structural or institutional racism, which is about structures in society that contribute toward negative impacts on people of one race because of patterns of behavior that, perhaps unconsciously, constitute harm to them.

I recommend reading my posts on normative whiteness, racial narratives, calling black people "articulate", and the racist elements of colorblindness ideology. That's by no means an exhaustive list, just a few examples of kinds of racism that someone may or may not be aware of and may or may not consider to be racism, and yet it's clear that these examples are a kind of racism once you think about them.

As for this case, I think he's taking advantage of a racist structure in our society, and that's a rhetorical structure. He's at the very least using linguistic abilities that white people have to demean black people in racist ways, even if he doesn't intend it to reflect an attitudinal racism but rather intends it to be a sort of character acting that accomplishes the effect of hurting that he wanted to achieve. So whether he's a racist or not in the strong sense, this at least shows that he's willing to take advantage of racist structures in society to achieve rhetorical force in a way that could never be returned to him. Historical realities allow for no comparable response. He's thus capitalizing on white privilege.

Now the fact that he's willing to do this shows that he's willing to take advantage of an evil structure in the historical and linguistic makeup of American society in a way that is pretty immoral. That doesn't prove that he's got white supremacist ideology, and I don't think it makes it absolutely clear that he's even got a particular animus against black people (although I can see why someone might think it makes it seem likely). What it does show is indifference toward one of the worst injustices in the history of this country, and that could theoretically come from some combination of ignorance, insensitivity, and anger without coming from hate and racist ideology. It's still a kind of racism to be able to do this, but it doesn't actually require hating all or most black people, and it especially doesn't require literally thinking of himself as morally superior because of his race.

This is absolutly uncalled for however if it had been a black man talking about it on stage people would have thought it was funny...or michael irving on espn sports radio saying that the reason that tony roma (qb for the dallas cowboys) is such a good athlete is because his great great great great grandma grabbed a brother from the barn. Double standard dont you think. I dont see michael irving apologizing or getting repremanded. The story isnt even on cnn,nbc,cbs,espn,fox sports. Blacks need to chill out and realize that they are calling the kettle black (pun intended). they seem to think its ok for the black race to make racist comments towards the white race....or carlos mencia for instance (gets away with it cause he is not white)....

I don't think we should excuse racism no matter who it's coming from, but surely some kinds of racism are worse than others. In particular, it's pretty awful to call to mind some of the worst mistreatments in the history of this country and then acting as if the descendants of those victims ought to be grateful it's still not happening. It's nowhere near as bad when the racist statements don't involve making light of such history or tacitly accepting it as routine.

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