Celebrity intolerance reminds us of racism
November 22, 2006
With former “Seinfeld” co-star Michael Richards’ racist rant, we’re again reminded of how deep and wide the waters of racial intolerance run in our culture.
Richards’ tirade at an L.A. comedy club on November 17 was caught on a video cell phone and posted on a major Internet site. “Shut up,” Richards shouted at two African-American members of the club audience who had been engaging in the comedy club custom of heckling. “Fifty years ago, we’d have you upside down with a f------ fork up your a---.”
Richards then let loose with an n-word-filled barrage that was stunning in its volume and intensity. He added: “That’s what happens when you interrupt the white man.”
Like Mel Gibson’s recent anti-Semitic tirade before a cop when he was stopped for driving under the influence, Richards’ rant has become a cultural flashpoint. Debate about the Richards affair can be found on numerous blogs and other Internet sites. Some defend Richards, saying that he was taking on the character of a racist to illustrate a point. Others personally attack Richards and his less-than-blockbuster career post-“Seinfeld.”
For his part, Michael Richards, like Mel Gibson, has made a public apology for his statements. Richards put in a painfully fumbling appearance on “Late Show with David Letterman” three days after the club incident — a slot arranged by Richards’ loyal friend Jerry Seinfeld, who described Richards’ tirade as “a horrible, horrible mistake.” Richards looked contrite, even sickly.
Within Richards’ mea culpa lies perhaps the most important lesson from the whole affair: sincere self-reflection. No matter how much we may all desire a world where racial, religious, homophobic or ethnic hatred is no longer an issue, we are far from that ideal.
We should focus less on the words and actions of a single celebrity like Michael Richards, and more on what each of us should be doing to overcome the lingering feelings of bigotry and prejudice that run just below the surface of our popular culture and polite, genteel exteriors.
Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based journalist and co-host of “The Morning Show” on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. She can be reached at email@example.com.