We’re All Racists?

I was listening to “Talk of the Nation” on NPR on the way home from work today, and they were talking about the whole Michael Richards racial rage display at the Laugh Factory. One of the guests on the program was Michael Shermer – the publisher of Skeptic magazine – who was talking about his op-ed piece in the LA Times. His main point in the piece is about how, privately, we’re all racists. He based his findings on test that I took months ago that some researchers at Harvard put together. The test, if done correctly, measures your racial preferences based on images and words on a screen. What you associate as good or bad depends on which button you choose. Guess what? Michael Shermer says he’s a racist based on the findings of the test. But his racism is not borne out of a life-long membership with the KKK. Rather, he says that it stems from the nature of human evolution and the kind of inter-tribal relationships we had with those in the “in” and “out” groups back in the day when our species were a bunch of hunter-gatherers. That’s one explanation, but if you’re more eager to take the test, you can do so here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit

I’m curious: what do you think of when you hear the term “racist?” I’m not sure that the image of Michael Richards or Mel Gibson would come to mind had it not been for Richards’ on-stage ugliness, or Gibson’s drunken paranoia of Jews after his arrest. To me, racism is about the power to deny one group access to all that society has to offer by creating laws, misusing science, using violence and stereotypes to prohibit a group from interacting or taking part in the larger society. I’m sure I’m missing a few things in that definition, but it’s basically about creating and reinforcing divisions in society based on the color of one’s skin, national origin, or ethnic background.

Or to make my point blunt: Malcolm X once posed a question at Harvard back in the 60s to illustrate the depth of racism in the United States: “What do you call a black man with a PhD? A nigger.”

It seems to me that what Richards did on stage was a moment when his private prejudices became public. Was he trying to reinforce divisions in society in the way described above? Not quite. But by using the term “nigger” over and over, he was clearly trying to inflict emotional harm on his hecklers; punishing them for having the audacity to call him unfunny. You see, Richards is used to being a star. He’s used to the privilege it grants him. His face is recognizable almost everywhere he goes, he gets treated with deference when he goes out in public, and, after years of this, he expects his special status will hold true in all situations. But there’s one thing that celebrities and politicians often presume: they should be immune to public scrutiny and criticism. Richards’ case isn’t clear-cut example of racism, but there are racist elements in what he did. The hecklers crossed some invisible line that Richards had in his head. And when Richards snapped, his color-specific tirade was horrible attempt to remind his hecklers that he was a celebrity among the unwashed masses.


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