The Michael Richards N-word outburst at the Laugh Factory drew not one, but two columns in Newsweek from black staffers. Both praised praising society for coming to the point of outrage over such remarks. Both mildly mocked the obligatory "Kramer" trip to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson (while not mocking Sharpton and Jackson). Both revisited a long history of racism. Ellis Cose recalled a South African woman who was beaten, raped, subjected to electric shocks, and strangled within an inch of her life. Raina Kelley went big-picture: "The politics of black and white really began 400 years ago, when, in 1619, Virginia settlers took ownership of slaves from a Dutch man-of-war." And both worked in George Allen’s Macaca remark (only one worked in the RNC ad against Playboy-party man Harold Ford.)
Ellis Cose wasn’t having the Richards excuse that the N-word outburst "wasn’t the real me." He not only worked in Allen and Mel Gibson, but mysteriously added Ted Haggard and Mark Foley. Apparently, every recent embarrassment by a conservative or Republican makes the list.
When Flip Wilson declared "The Devil made me do it" years ago, he was trying to be funny. Michael Richards, explaining how he was caught on tape acting like a KKK recruiter on crack, apparently was not. Nor was Mel Gibson, George Allen, Ted Haggard or Mark Foley. They, instead, were trying to make us understand how decent folks like themselves could have gone so wrong with America watching.
It should be noted that the original Macaca-gaffe manufacturers at the Washington Post are corporate cousins of Newsweek. Allen, then, is lumped by Cose into the "kindred spirits" category next to Kramer’s screaming N-word outburst:
Certainly, people of good will, whatever the race or religion, hope that Richards and his kindred spirits find their way to a better place. But it's impossible to know how sincere their apologies are. And it doesn't really matter very much. The more interesting fact is that they felt compelled to apologize at all.
Why is it "interesting" (read: surprising) that Richards felt compelled to "apologize at all"? Doesn’t that make Cose look awfully cynical that any progress has been made in race relations "at all"? Cose also found it "odd" that Richards would follow a publicist’s advice to seek out Jackson and Sharpton, suggesting that it’s an insincere charade. After noting that Mel Gibson offered to meet with the Jewish community after his drunken anti-Semitic rant, Cose concluded it’s nice that our society has these kinds of confessional rituals, "regardless of whether Mel Gibson really means it when he sheepishly says, ‘I’m sorry.’"
Raina Kelley lectured "we need to stop saying that all of this talk of people's color is behind us. It isn't. If we're going to talk about race, let's talk about the victims of Hurricane Katrina or poverty." Kelley insisted that Richards isn't really shocking:
Richards apologized on "Letterman," hired a top PR man and apologized again, this time to the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. By the time you read this, he'll probably have been booked on "Oprah" or "Good Morning America." Perhaps he'll have positioned himself as a victim and checked into rehab. Forgive my cynicism, but we're in a well-worn groove here.
I was not shocked by Richards's outburst, and I don't believe many other African-Americans were, either. We know racism exists both from our own experiences and from the world around us. In California, Mel Gibson was caught in a drunken anti-Semitic rant during a police stop just four months ago. In Virginia, George Allen helped the Republicans lose the Senate when he called one of his opponent's staffers—a young volunteer of Indian descent—a "macaca," which is a genus of monkey and is considered by many to be a racial slur. In Tennessee, an anti-Harold Ford Jr. ad featuring a blonde white woman leeringly saying "Harold, call me" was widely seen as racist.
Speaking of "well-worn grooves," this is where Kelley drags out the history of racism beginning in 1619. It’s good to remind news magazine readers of our history, but it’s questionable whether "Macaca" or "Harold, call me" justifies putting modern-day conservatives into comparison with South African rapist/stranglers and the Virginia plantation owners of the 17th century. They fall back on journalistic terminology: Allen used a term "considered by many" to be a slur, and the Ford as was "widely seen" as racist. And Newsweek is "considered by many" to be a liberal opinion journal masquerading as a news magazine.