Once again last week the American public was confronted with an episode of public racism, when video surfaced of Seinfeld alum Michael Richards using ugly racial epithets to berate African American audience members who had heckled him during a stand-up comedy routine. Inevitably, along with the well-deserved condemnation of Richards’ disgusting behavior came the predictable denunciations of American society as a hotbed of racism.
The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote that, “[A]s a society, we still haven't purged ourselves of racial prejudices and animosities. We've buried them under layers of sincere enlightenment and insincere political correctness, but they're still down there, eating at our souls.” That’s a serious charge, and more than a little bit over the top. The fact that some individuals indulge in unforgivably racist behavior doesn’t make American society, as a whole, racist – any more than the continued existence of rapists and wife-beaters means that Americans collectively are harboring secret animus against women.
If anything, many Americans go to great lengths to make amends for the serious racial injustices of the past. And if Robinson were really serious about condemning “insincere political correctness,” there’s plenty to examine when it comes to the controversy shaping up over the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.
It’s been extensively reported that incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi may decide to pass over Congresswoman Jane Harman, a moderate who’s well-respected for her expertise, in favor of the next most-senior committee member, impeached and convicted former Judge Alcee Hastings (who happens to be African-American). Certainly, Pelosi dislikes Harman personally. But what bears special note is the reported rationale for her willingness to consider Hastings to replace her as committee chairman.
When Jane Harman, the committee’s current ranking Democrat, returned to the House from an unsuccessful run for Governor of California, she was restored to full seniority – which meant that a junior member, who happened to be African-American, was removed from the House Intelligence Committee. As a result, Pelosi is reportedly under pressure from African American congressmen to choose Hastings because of a promise, according to the November 21 Los Angeles Times, “not to slight either blacks or Latinos when plum slots came up on the Intelligence and Homeland Security committees.”
Certainly, in an age of terrorism, it’s remarkable that a federal judge removed for bribery – whatever his race – would even be considered for one of the most sensitive national security posts in Congress. As such, the entire episode could actually be construed as a remarkable testament to Americans’ Herculean efforts to compensate for historical racial prejudice and division. It speaks volumes about our society’s racial sensitivity that the mainstream media has largely chosen to ignore the fact that national security may be subordinated to naked racial politics. What’s more, at least in the media’s view, racial considerations alone apparently constitute an acceptable rationale for putting sensitive secrets into the hands of a man who’s obviously unqualified to be entrusted with them.
Of course, it’s worth noting that if the racial element weren’t there, it would be hard for the press to characterize Pelosi’s behavior as anything more than exacting petty, vindictive personal retribution from a fellow female politician. That, in turn, would play into sexist stereotypes of “cat fighting” and petty female behavior.
And ultimately, that’s the problem with looking at individuals as nothing more than the members of a group. Whether with hatred and contempt, like Michael Richards, or with all good intentions, like Eugene Robinson and other members of the press, when everything is processed through the lens of group identity, the things that shouldn’t matter – like sex and race – take center stage, and the things that do matter – like America’s national security – become little more than an afterthought.
Maybe, contrary to Robinson’s charge, the problem isn’t that our society remains decidedly, if covertly, racist. Maybe the real problem is that we’ve become so conscious of handling our differences sensitively that we’ve lost the capacity to put aside group identities in the interest of what should matter to all of us.