It’s Racism, Stupid

By now many folks know about the anti-Black reports spewed by the American comic actor, Michael Richards, AKA Seinfeld’s Kramer. In response to being heckled at a comedy club by some Black patrons, Richards unloaded anti-Black remarks from the stage for over two minutes. One patron captured it on video. (Those pesky new fangled phones!)

Richards quickly hired a crisis management expert, and went out of his way to assert that he is no racist, even appearing on Jesse Jackson’s radio program to explain that as a child some of his best friends were black. (I am not joking). Lots of white folks have warily come to his defense, and an “discussion” has begun on the airwaves as to whether Richards is racist or just his remarks. Some promise that good will come of all this.

I have heard almost nothing about this issue from the LGBT media/bloggers and from Christian folks, (Oh, other than a piece in the Christian Post where they highlight a Black minister who blames Black culture for Richards’ ugliness. Now that is some responsible Christian reporting)

Columnist Leornard Pitts, Jr., puts cuts through the crap so well. Too often white men (straight and gay oh and women too) go out of their way to assert they are not racist, when in fact, we ARE racist. We live in a society that is racist and part of the privilege that we enjoy is that we don’t have to see it exists. That we deny we have work to do as a society is evidence that we have work to do.

But Pitts brings it beyond simply name calling to the very essence of how racism works in the US.

If so many of my white fellow Americans refuse to recognize racism when it is this blatant and unmistakable, what expectation can we have that they will do so when it is subtle and covert? In other words, when it is what it usually is.

After all, modern bigotry usually isn’t some nitwit screaming the N-word. It is jobs you don’t get and loans you don’t get and apartments you don’t get and health care you don’t get and justice you don’t get, for reasons you get all too clearly, even though no one ever quite speaks them. Or needs to. It is smiles in your face and knives in your back. And it is, yes, a sitcom – like ”Seinfeld” – that presents New York City, of all places, as a black-free zone.

These are complaints blacks have sought for years to drive home to their fellow Americans only to be met largely by indifference, the defensive apathy of those who are free to ignore or diminish any claim on conscience that makes them uncomfortable. At the risk of metaphor abuse, the response to this debacle makes clear that you can’t explain Advanced Racism to those who haven’t passed Racism 101.

The whole article is worth a read: Richards’ meltdown: If not racism, then what was it?

This post has 5 Comments

  1. Anna HP on November 27, 2006 at 6:06 pm

    This will probably be my longest comment yet and I am sorry for misspellings and “swenglish” but I have a hard time focusing (focus *LoL*) on grammar when I am upset.

    Yesterday I watched a documentry about the faboulus swedish standup-comedian Jesper Odelberg. I don´t know if I translate this correctly but he “suffers” from CP, Cerebral Pares.

    Anyway, they showed a part of his performance where he said that he was working on becoming a happier person and had discovered that the best way to do this in todays society was to become a racist, because those were the only people that could possibly benifit from the new rules of imigration. He talked about how easy it was to become a racist, since you obviously didn´t need an education. There are no such things as “Rascism 101” or “Racial hatred for dummies”.

    He had come up with the ultimate solution. ITR – International Total Racism. The idea is that everyone is less worthy .. then before. You shouldn´t only make imigrants leave your country. Everybody should leave every country – all over the world.

    I laughed so hard watching him, sitting there in his weelchair and talking about this, but at the same time I felt sad because he had a point (of course) you know.

    You can find racism all over the world and it isn´t the people that yell their hatred outloud but the ones who don´t that you should fear. Maybe ITR is the only way to make sure it dissappears :)? But where would we go? Mars? The Moon?
    Or is it maybe time to learn from the misstakes that has been made and put an end to it?

  2. James Riemermann on November 27, 2006 at 9:34 pm


    Michael Richards’ racism in this outburst seems crystal clear to me, and his self-defense completely incoherent. I also resonate strongly with the Leonard Pitts article you link to, speaking of the enormous harm done by less visible racism, where people are passed over for jobs because of race, and all kinds of policies and attitudes that make it so hard for minorities to make their way out of poverty and be judged, if at all, by the content of their character alone. It’s a huge complex of problems we need to face up to.

    But as far as I can understand it, I must disagree with your apparent view that simply being white in a society where whites are privileged, is racist in and of itself. This is very different from what Pitts is saying. It seems to me that such broad-based white guilt completely disconnects the destructive reality of racism from the racist attitudes, speech, public policy, and personal behavior that we should be focusing on. What’s more, it amounts to guilt by association, a practice at the very heart of any sort of bigotry, racial or otherwise. It’s just a bad idea.

    I have heard this sort of universal white guilt expressed more by my fellow Quakers than by anyone else, and I have to say it seems to me self-indulgent and unhelpful, rather than a serious and critical look at the nature of racism and racial discrimination.

    It’s good for us to think about this stuff, no question. But maybe we ought to think a little harder.

  3. Peterson Toscano on November 27, 2006 at 10:04 pm

    anna hp, that sounds like a very clever use of comedy. I love good comedy. It does such good.

    thanks for writing and for your comments. I don’t believe that being white in the US automatically means that someone is a racist, but I believe we are part of a system of racism that benefits us directly if we are aware of it or not and in that sense we are racists. Also most of us carry assumptions and beliefs passed onto us by the media, family and friend (and Friends) about race.

    Now if by “white guilt” you mean self-indulgent FEELINGS of guilt, then I agree with you. That is unhelpful. But if you mean guilt as in being culpable, then I disagree.

    White privilege happens all the time in the US in every social class. As a white man, things come easier for me. I still have to work hard and be good at what I do, but I believe that if I were a black man, I would have to work much harder and be much better to open the same doors that open for me today.

    I find it amazing when I walk into a town to do a show and absolute strangers, most who never heard of me before, open their homes, lend me their cars, let me speak and perform at their churches. I have a sense that if I were a black man, a woman, a trans man or woman or someone with an obvious physical disability, life would be different for me and muchharder.

    I don’t FEEL guilty but I am aware that I benefit directly from a system that rewards white men in a way that it does not reward non-whites and women. And I feel it is my responsibility to stay aware of those benefits and not be deceived to think that my successes come simply because of my hard work and skills.

    Pitts speaks of how people of color are denied benefits that white people enjoy solely because of skin color and the assumptions we carry about race. For some, knowing and accepting that these privileges and differences exist is the first step in trying to correct the imbalance, and that is where loads of folks get stuck.

  4. James Riemermann on November 27, 2006 at 11:18 pm

    I think I essentially agree with you about the state of race in the U.S. But I can’t parse this sentence: “I don’t believe that being white in the US automatically means that someone is a racist, but I believe we are part of a system of racism that benefits us directly if we are aware of it or not and in that sense we are racists.”

    To my ear, you begin by saying that one can be white in the U.S. without being racist, and end by saying that one cannot be white in the U.S. without being racist. It’s a direct contradiction.

    Basically, I don’t see how benefiting from a racist system is a valid definition of being a racist. There’s no volition involved. Yes, we all have responsibility to work for a more just society. To equate the fact of that responsibility with being a racist makes no sense to me at all. It’s like calling someone a soldier because they live in a country with an army. We all have an unavoidable relationship with the military, but equating that with being a soldier is just a misuse of language.

    So, my first objection is about misuse of language. But the greater objection is, it takes the focus off of far more relevant questions, like what kind of public policy will it take to effectively combat homelessness, hunger, isolation, all these economic and social problems that hit minorities harder than any other group by far; and how do we get those kind of policies implemented. I really don’t see how white liberals calling themselves racists is going to help at all. We should be bringing our strengths, not our weaknesses, to the surface, and using those strengths to get to work.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to be a crank. I’m with you on the essentials.

  5. Peterson Toscano on November 28, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    james, I hear your point and will think further about it. I wonder if in part it is a limitation of language. Maybe we simply do not have a word for what I am trying to describe. Passive racism? Some have called it institutional racism, but that seems to take away personal responsibility.

    Perhaps racists is far too loaded of a word, one of the worst things to be called in society today. Even so, when I see so many folks protesting so intensely that they are NOT something (gay, religious, racist, whatever) I wonder if they protest too much in hopes of avoiding an inward reality, albeit an unwelcome one.

    But yes, it sounds like we agree on the essentials–implementing change.

    Thanks so much for you thoughtful contributions and I look forward to reading more.

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