Last week comedian Michael Richards fired a round of angry racial epithets at several young black men heckling him in a comedy club in Los Angeles. Just one week later, Sean Bell, a 23 year old groom-to-be and his two friends (all black) were gunned down by five plain-clothed New York City police officers who felt compelled to fire over 50 shots total at the three unarmed men who were celebrating Bell’s impending marriage.
Although some have characterized the slaughter as ‘mistaken identity’, the three were unmistakably young, black and deemed menacing–even without possessing weapons. Apparently these young men didn’t need to be armed to be considered dangerous.
When replaying the video of Richards’ relentless round of expletives aimed at pranksters in the audience, one cannot help but draw parallels to one of the police officers who fired his weapon 31 times, emptying two full magazines at three unarmed black men. He too must have felt very threatened.
It appears racism has no coastal bias and the indignation and public outcry that erupted on the heels of Richards’ ‘slip o the tongue’ was deafening and certainly warranted. And yet, after all the criticism and numerous video replays plastered on network television, Richards, in an interview with talk show host David Letterman, earnestly insists "I’m not racist"-as if this is the only question of concern.
Pundits, entertainers, activists and journalists spend hours posing the question "is he racist?" and carefully pointing their forefinger in the direction of the culprit, and speculation abounds as to whether or not Richard’s career is over.
Why? Because in America we don’t tolerate overt racism. No siree, no ‘n’ words here. Never mind that our prisons are disproportionately filled with black men and women, that schools serving predominately black and brown communities remain understaffed and underfunded and that in study after study, it is revealed that people of color receive inferior health care, employment opportunities and many are destined to live in poverty their entire lives.
So just what did we learn from the past weeks debacles? We learned that after a white, wealthy, quick witted and beloved comedian felt threatened by several young black hecklers, he reached in his comedic tool bag and pulled the pin out of a racially charged verbal grenade and hurled it into the balcony.
Richards apologetic protestations on Letterman are indicative of the mass denial infecting this entire country-especially white America. We shake our heads in consternation as if what lies in Richards does not live inside all of us. As if somehow, the problem is ‘over there’ and thank god it does not live in me. If that were true, Sean Bell (and thousands like him) would most likely be enjoying his honeymoon rather than buried six feet under.
After viewing the Richards’video several times, it appeared the vitriol was lurking just under the surface-which of course it was. Because that’s where racism lies for most of us-just under the surface.
Just under the surface in the ways we instinctively clutch our purses on the street when approached by a black man, when we are alone on an elevator or when we read the latest headline about what is commonly known as ‘black- on-black crime’.
If only we were less concerned with being labeled "a racist" and more concerned about the systemic and institutional damage inflicted on people of color on a daily basis. Maybe then we could transform our outrage and indignation of overt bigotry and violence into something meaningful. Perhaps even something that would prevent innocent young men from dying at the hands of those sworn to protect us-ALL of us.
When will we understand that these outbursts–like the one Richards displayed last week–are symptomatic rather than a-typical of something much deeper? That the words he vomited at his audience are very much connected to the fatal 50 shots fired at Sean Bell and his friends.
If only we could start from the premise that yes, of course Michael Richards is racist-and so are most white people. It is impossible to be raised in a society where white supremacy is one of the founding principles and not entertain racist notions. It’s too deeply engrained for any of us to boast of immunity. Simply impossible.
If we could somehow grasp the notion that it is only to the degree that we acknowledge and unearth the racist notions that lie hidden in all of us-often just beneath the surface– that we will become ‘less racist’.
If so, perhaps we might one day be capable of making the correlation between words that wound and bullets that kill.
MOLLY SECOURS is a writer/filmmaker/speaker and frequent co-host on
"Behind The Headlines" and "FreeStyle on 88.1 WFSK in Nashville
She can be reached through her website: www.mollysecours.com