Richards incident says something about morality, too

Posted: Nov 27, 2006 12:00 AM
Richards incident says something about morality, too

Let's take a closer look at so-called comedian Michael Richards' racist outburst that is capturing so much press and airtime. The incident, and what has ensued, tells me more about the overall pathetic moral state of our country than it does about racism.

Richards claims he's not a racist, despite attacking a black heckler, at a comedy club where he was performing with a string of the most inflammatory, demeaning, and vulgar racial slurs.

Is it possible that he's not? Maybe. It's possible that he's just a moron.

But check out the deep soul searching that this inane incident has provoked across the nation.

The general sentiment is pretty much captured in a column by The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson who sees in what happened here sad proof that "racism is not dead" in America.

I am in complete agreement with Mr. Robinson that racial animosity lives. But I certainly didn't need Michael Richards' imbecility as proof of this.

If we should be thinking about anything, it should be to try and understand why, after all these years, racial consciousness persists.

As satisfying as it might be for some to watch, Mr. Richards groveling around on television apologizing isn't going to help much. Nor are any sums that left wing legal entrepreneur Gloria Allred might extract from him. Nor are apologies to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (the knee-jerk assumption that these two black ministers speak for 40 million black Americans I think is equally racist).

Allow me to suggest that racism and racial consciousness persist and loom large because we choose it to be this way.

Eugene Robinson says that Michael Richards did not see a heckler. Instead, says Robinson, he saw a black heckler. But we live in a country that insists on placing all its citizens in racial categories and using measures of how these categories stack up as measures of national decency.

Every major institution _ business, government, educational _ one way or another keeps track of how many blacks it has on board. Every major corporation has a diversity officer to make sure the colors of the beans are in order. Every corporation gets surveys from the NAACP asking them how many blacks they've got.

When I get a loan from the bank, the loan officer sheepishly asks if it's OK to report that I'm black.

We have institutionalized race consciousness to the very core of our society, so it should be evident why it persists. It's the law.

These laws, by transforming human beings into racial categories, dehumanize blacks and whites. Blacks feel less personally responsible for their own lives and whites are forced to relate to blacks as beans to count rather than human beings. One result is animosity of blacks toward whites and whites toward blacks.

Which leads to the second, and related, point. Racism is no longer understood as a moral problem. It is a political problem.

The success of the civil rights movement of the 1960's was its moral power. The few prevailed over the many because they had moral conviction _ truth _ on their side.

Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech was not a speech. It was a sermon. He talked about character and exhorted Americans to strive for liberty because we are "God's children."

King was not an impractical man. He knew that laws needed to be passed to deal with segregation and the absence of equality under the law. But he also knew that law "cannot change the heart" and that for us to become a greater nation, we needed to be a more moral nation.

This said, consider the circumstances of the Richards incident. It took place in a comedy club in Los Angeles. These places are cesspools of profanity and degrading sexual and scatological humor, delivered in a haze of alcohol.

The black heckler yelled out, "It's not funny. That's why you're a reject. Never had no shows, never had no movies. 'Seinfeld' _ that's it."

This tastelessness doesn't justify Richards' racist diatribe. But on the other side of the coin, blacks who want a better world ought to get out of the gutter.

For me it is commentary on our overall sorry moral state that as news shows obsessed over this mindless incident, they totally ignored an Associated Press story this same week reporting that out-of-wedlock births in the U.S. reached 37.5 percent in 2005, a record high. The figure for blacks is almost double this.

Perhaps this holiday season it is worth considering that racism will be with us as long as evil remains within us. The answer will not come from politicians and lawyers.

It will come only when we raise ourselves up. Only then, in the words of Dr. King, will we be able to say "thank God Almighty, we are free at last."