Tuesday, November 28, 2006
From The Chicago Sun-Times…
Unfunny tirade opens old wounds
BY JESSE JACKSON
“Kramer” is sorry -- in both senses of that word. After unleashing a hateful racial assault on two customers whom he thought were disrupting his act, Michael Richards apologizes. “I’m not a racist,” he says. He seeks counseling for his rage. He asks forgiveness -- or at least hopes that we’ll forget.
But Richards is not alone. His rage reopened an old wound, but there is much glass -- much of it cutting and fresh -- in that wound. He acts in a context -- and the context is a coarsening of racial division.
Consider: Faced with a close Senate race in Tennessee, the Republican National Committee abandoned its self-professed desire to “reach out” and ponied up for an ugly ad designed to appeal to the ugliest of racial fears: that African Americans will take white women. Referring to Harold Ford’s making a serious run for the Senate, the ad features a young, white model, nude from the shoulder up, who closes saying, “Harold, call me.” Clever, effective and one of the ugliest appeals to racial fears since Willy Horton in the 1988 presidential campaign.
Republican conservatives also launched vitriolic campaigns against immigrants -- read Latinos. “They” would take your jobs, would bankrupt Medicaid, and were overcrowding our schools. Latino immigrants became the equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s fictional “welfare queen” living high off of welfare.
Republicans in the Senate then returned Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott to a leadership post. Lott lost the post when he suggested that the nation would be far better off if the apartheid candidate Strom Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948. Nina Simone used to sing a refrain that “Everybody knows about Mississippi.” Mississippi has grown a lot since then. But Republicans in search of election clearly have not.
Consider the media. There were no African-American regulars on “Seinfeld,” even though it was set in New York City. TV is no longer a completely white ghetto. Oprah Winfrey remains a remarkable phenomenon. But look at the talk show hosts from the news hour to midnight: There is not an African American or Latino among them. Tavis Smiley is the sole notable exception -- and he’s on the educational channel, PBS.
This has an impact. Lott’s ascension to leadership is treated with kid gloves. The survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans are described as refugees, not citizens. And too little attention is paid to the “urban removal” program that has been the centerpiece of the administration’s response to the crisis in New Orleans.
The use of the hate word -- n----- -- has become too culturally acceptable. Some of this comes from black culture and the informal use of the word in teasing mode. In fact, this is hate language. It’s a punch in the groin disguised as a word.
Our forefathers created the First Amendment to ensure a robust public debate and to prohibit the government from making laws to squelch political speech, even speech critical of our leaders. But obscenity has never enjoyed that protection, nor should it. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater does not have protection. Similarly, hate speech -- like that wielded by Richards -- has and should be illegal.
All this makes people testy. Most Americans want to put segregation and racism behind us. In California, minorities are moving into the majority. Affirmative action and civil rights have opened doors and smashed through glass ceilings. Yet at the same time, Americans pump billions into a prison industrial complex that is built on a racially discriminatory justice system, where African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged with a serious crime, more likely to do time. The administration has essentially gutted enforcement of the civil rights laws. The assault on affirmative action continues.
Richards opened an old wound, but one that is inflamed with new glass and new cuts. We can’t pretend the wound is healed when the bleeding is getting worse.