Michael Richards is an ugly new symbol of America’s ugly old problem with racism. But in confronting “Kramer,” have we moved the conversation on race forward or driven it back?
“Kramer,” as he’s been known to fans of Seinfeld, is racist. He harbors a serious and violent hostility towards Black people and, in large part, he’s been condemned for it. (Though perhaps with a bit more sympathy that this author would afford someone who harkened back to lynching times when a white man could “have a black man upside down with a fork in his ass.”)
As a nation we’ve been conditioned to respond with a peculiar form of outraged indifference to an individual’s racist tirades. Jesse Jackson is called, dirty corporations issue press releases, and angry blogs link us up to YouTube. We are shocked and appalled. And after we express our disgust we quickly resign ourselves to a “that’s just the way the world is” narrative and the conversation abruptly ends.
But as we rage over acts of hateful speech, the racial divide only grows deeper and each side more entrenched in their positions. We’ve seen the “Kramer” story play out so often, in fact, that many believe racism to be permanent, irreparable and impervious to any intervention.
That’s exactly why limiting the race debate to outbursts like his is futile and dangerous.
While there is no doubt we should be telling the comedian that racism is no joke, what if we held President Bush and the people we put into office across the country to the same scrutiny, if not more?
Whether personal attack or public policy, racism demands our outrage. But targeting a washed-up comedian best known for his ability to burst through a door, can, at best, feel great and deliver an apology that pacifies us, allowing us to share a collective “we shall overcome”.
But confronting racism in public policy can give this nation what has remained long elusive: a practical plan for ending inequities at the color line. Asking our elected officials to face race by designing innovative solutions that index the minimum wage to inflation or provide all kids of color access to preschool is the actual stuff of primetime news.
Can you legislate a change in people’s hearts and minds? Of course not. But by changing the rules of the game, we can address disparities and move solutions to historical inequities. Our recent reports on Facing Race show exactly that.
As long as we’re tuning into Jesse Jackson’s radio show to hear Richards rehearse talking points from his new publicist (a Hollywood legend known for carting the water when celebs stoke the fires of racism) while he begs for a meeting to “heal” with the men he attacked (I’d stay away guys), the solutions that can truly close the racial divide falter and fail without notice.
Granted, he started a conversation. Let’s hope it’s a new one.