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25 November 2006


Steve Gorelick

The tragedies of Ota Benga and the Venus Hottentot are vivid reminders of a time when virtually no shame or scruples got in the way of loud, brazen, even joyous expressions of racism. Hating was still good public fun. Mammies, coons, minstrels in blackface, African exotics, and pickaninnies were wildly successful “brands” that marketed every imaginable consumer product. They were cherished forms of entertainment. Even our Presidents could still lead us all in a good coon joke, and we could still rely on almost any daily newspaper to include a few humorous anecdotes about the antics of some hilariously stupid black man.

Wasn’t that a time? We could hate as a collectivity and enjoy that special solidarity we only feel when we join hands, mobilize against a common folk-devil, and share an image of the odious “other.” And beyond the sheer fun of racism as entertainment, our common folk-devil served another purpose: He or she could be a stand-in for every social stress, anxiety or problem that we feared. Pull out an old coon joke and everything was alright. Or so we thought.

But in the 20th century we screwed up all the fun. Not content with just a good laugh, we refused at mid-century to even consider laws that would have outlawed lynching, insisting that states should have the right to decide whether it was or was not alright to hang a black man up by his neck from a tree. We overplayed our hand and tried to maintain an educational system that was both separate and unequal. And the result was a whole host of laws and Supreme Court decisions that ended all the fun. Hate had to move underground. It had to adapt to changing political and social circumstances and, like any aggressive virus, had to mutate into a form in which it could survive.

So we entered the “age of veneer.” No more Amos and Andy. We wised up and started answering public opinion polls in ways that touted our new tolerance. And as long as our kids didn’t get bussed across town, we were happy to agree that Brown vs. Board of education was an important decision. And even when our kids were affected, we didn’t have to run around screaming like racists. We could continue to claim the mantle of tolerance while stand-ins like Louise Day Hicks did the dirty work on our behalf. Besides, our neighborhoods were still safely white and segregated – from the suburbs of Los Angeles to South Boston. Why not talk the talk of tolerance? We could even send our kids to all white summer camps and have them come back singing Kum-Ba-Yah. Bless our hearts, we didn’t even get the joke when a songwriter named Phil Ochs wrote that we “love Puerto Ricans and Negros as long as they don't move next door.” We beamed at the progress.

So what perverse impulse leads me to miss the old days when hate was hate? What did we lose when the people in my suburban Los Angeles neighborhood finally started taking down the black lawn jockey statues? And why was I was so thrilled when Michael Richards went postal on stage?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t miss any hate or racism or stereotyping that has genuinely gone to wherever dead stereotypes go when they are retired. You know, the place where Sambo’s, the national pancake chain went, or wherever they buried all the old radio tapes of Freeman Gosden or Charles Correll imitating the voice of two black buffoons.

But I am downright nostalgic for the days when you could see and smell and feel hate. When you saw it coming. When politicians didn’t try to package their institutional racism in supposedly benevolent public policy. When the face of racism was a man named Lester Maddox who gave out souvenir head-bashing baseball bats and not affable racists like Ronald Reagan whose racism was so coded and re-packaged and dressed up that even he didn’t know it was there.

In almost every area of human endeavor, subtlety and nuance are signs of progress and intellectual sophistication. But subtlety might have been the worst thing that ever happened to racism. Because by wrapping it in benevolence, by re-branding institutionalized cruelty as welfare reform, by getting rid of Amos and Andy and replacing them with Fred Sanford, we have allowed ourselves the collective illusion of progress. We have driven racism so far and so deep into our collective political consciousness that we can convince ourselves it is gone. Worst of all, those of us who claim the mantle of tolerance, who deeply believe that we have dodged the bullet of hate, can fully convince ourselves that at least we are somehow immune from ugliness.

So that’s why I was perversely pleased by the Michael Richards incident. For one brief moment, the fault line between who we think we are and who we really are opened up and good old fashioned rageful hate came pouring out in all its primal viciousness.

We could see that all the shrewd and skilled re-branding of racism, all the new costumes for stereotypes, has not changed a thing. It’s still there, embedded everywhere from public policy to our very consciousness. Or at least it will be there for the next day or two, until Angelina Jolie finds a new baby in Zambia and we can forget about a pathetic comic who made the mistake of spewing bile into the lens of a cell phone camera.

Karen Gregory

I thought this video clip was a good illustration of Steve Gorelick’s comment that we have driven racism deeply below the surface of our consciousness. Here Matt Lauer of the Today Show speaks with two men, Kyle Dawson and Frank McBride, who were the targets of Michael Richards’ tirade. The conversation, which culminates in a frothy “challenge” to Richards from the men’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, begs the question “what is the point of this interview” and illustrates a sad reality. Not only has public conversation of race has been reduced to a discussion of legal recourse and compensation, but the very vocabulary we use has been reduced to a media friendly form of baby-talk. Maybe it’s time to say F U to the N-Word and reclaim the possibility of adult conversation, replete with all of its discomforting ability to produce signifiers that come much closer to the emotions, fears, and lived realities that they signify.


Archie Bishop

Thanks for engaging this. The extent to which this significant and revealing event has been reduced to one man's flip-out is astonishing. This is the point of prior post, "What's Apologizing Have to Do With It." The mainstream media have been avoiding an opportunity to look at core issues of our society; probably because they are the most common carriers of the condition.

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