Between Michael Richards' outburst in a comedy nightclub, Mel Gibson's tirade of a few months back, and Michael Irvin's musings about Tony Romo's racial heritage, I'm wondering if we need a clearer definition of what it means to be a racist.
These three cases are clearly not equal: the context in which something is said, and the identity of the speaker obviously make a great deal of difference in how we react to the speech. But if there is in fact a hierarchy to hate speech, on what basis should comments be judged? I'm curious to hear the thoughts of others on this. But here's a try.
I propose three criteria:
1. Content. What is said clearly makes a difference. I think, for example, that hate speech is more hateful the more specific it is. To call someone a nigger is not as a bad as arguing that black people have lower intelligence than whites. To make a targetted claim is worse than calling a name. Similarly, I think it matters how much a stereotype deviates from a legitimate generalization. For instance, (and this is, admittedly, not a great example) I think it's worse for someone to say that Jews are money-grubbers than it is to make a joke about how Orthodox Jews have large families. The first statement is groundless, and the second is at least statistically defensible. All hate speech is hurtful. But racism crosses the line and becomes dangerous when it encourages false belief about a targetted group. This much, I think, is fairly straightforward.
2. Intention. Was the remark intended to wound, or intended to perpetuate some social wrong? Was it malicious? I remember sitting in church, as a child, while our Presbyterian minister made jokes about how "cheap" Presbyterians were. If non-Presbyterians make that joke, it might be offensive. But a Presbyterian making jokes about Presbyterians with the intention of making Presbyterians laugh is fine, because there is a complete absence of malice in the comment. I think that Richard Pryor or Dave Chapelle's use of the word "nigger," or the Jewish jokes told by Jewish comics fall into the same category.
3. Conviction. Does the statement represent the individual's considered opinion? This to me is the trickiest of the three criterion. In Blink, I wrote a great deal about unconscious racism--how powerful and how prevalent it is. All of us, in our unconscious, harbor prejudicial thoughts. (If you don't believe me, I urge you to take the tests at www. i-a-t.org.) What is of greatest concern, I think, are not instances where those kinds of buried feelings leak out, but cases where hate speech appears to have been the product of considered, conscious deliberation. Comments made in writing, then, ought to be taken more seriously and judged more harshly than comments made in speech; comments made soberly are worse than those made in anger or jest. Comments made in the absence of emotional or chemical duress are worse than those made drunk, or in some stressful context. When a teenager yells at her mother, "I wish you were dead," that's hate speech. It's malcious and its targetted (I wish YOU were dead, not all mothers.) But mothers forgive their children for shouting those words, because the speech fails the conviction test. When we are frustrated or angry, we say things we don't mean--and the world, properly, ought to make allowances for us when we do.
So: Mel Gibson. How we rate his outburst? One of the many things Gibson said was that Jews were responsible for starting all of the world's wars. On content grounds, that's serious: it's specific and it's inaccurate. It's dangerous. He fails the intention test as well, because those words were clearly meant to harm. On conviction, I think we ought to cut him a little slack, since he was (mildly) drunk. On the other hand, Gibson's past associations and actions suggest that those words didn't come completely out of left field. I think the Gibson case is just about as serious as hate speech gets.
What of Michael Richards? His comments were clearly intended to harm, so I think according to the intention criteria he ought to be chastised. The other two categories are not so clear cut. On content grounds, he simply called a name--albeit a heinous one--but that's not like saying that Jews are responsible for starting all the world wars.
And on conviction, I think he gets a pass. First of all, no one has claimed that Richards harbors some secret racist worldview. He's the prototypical Hollywood liberal, and he's clearly devastated by the notion that he might be considered a racist. What's more, the circumstances were extenuating: he was angry and frustrated by hecklers. But more than that--and I think this is the critical issue--I think it matters that the remarks came in a comedy club. As far as I can tell, the practice of comedy, on the grass roots level, has recently become fixated on pushing the boundaries of taste, particuarly when it comes to the taboo subjects of race and ethnicity and group affiliation. That's what Howard Stern or Sarah Silverman's comedy is about. I thought the scene in Borat, similarly, where Sascha-Cohen attends a Pentecostal service, goes up for the altar call, and then mocks the religious esctasy of the other worshippers, was as deeply offensive as any movie scene I have witnessed in some time. Since when is it okay to invade someone's house of worship, and make fun of their most sacred religious rituals? But that is what comedy consists of right now, and I suspect that's what Richards was up to as well. He was trying to be shocking and trangressive, in the way his peers are all trying to be shocking and trangressive--and it came out wrong. That doesn't make him a racist. That just makes him a bad comic.
Finally, Michael Irwin. The quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, Irwin says, is so athletically gifted that some of his ancestors must have mixed it up with some black people. Please. I think we can fault him on content grounds, for perpetuating an simplistic and phony idea about the source of athletic ability. But there was no malice here, and there was no conviction either. He was making, on air, the kind of joke that players make every day in the locker room.
I'm reminded, in all of this, of the work that the psychologists Bruce Rind, Robert Bauserman, and Philip Tromovitch did a few years ago on sex abuse. All sex abuse is wrong, they argued. But not all of the acts that we describe with that term are equally harmful. For example, the data suggests that an episode of inappropriate contact between adult men and teenage boys does not have nearly same long term consequences as, say, repeated incestuous encounters between a father and a pre-teen daughter. And to use the word "sex abuse" to cover both crimes is to erase the very real distinctions between those two cases, and to undermine the social and moral power of that term.
I don't racism is any different. I've written as much on this subject, over the years, as I have because I think it is a profoundly serious problem in our society--much more profound than we generally acknowledge. But we debase that term when we apply it to comments or actions indiscriminately. There is a distinction between being a racist and simply saying something dumb.