Race: November 2006 Archives

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.

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