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An interesting definition. But I think you need to acknowledge the way that power influences the way we talk about racism; that is, the fact that for Dave Chappelle to perpetrate stereotypes about whites is less bad than for Michael Richards to use the n-word, mostly because of the power dynamics in this country. So power is obviously an important component, and there's a widespread belief that only members of the group in power can be racist/sexist/XXXist.

Too, I think while intention is important, it's also important to acknowledge that no matter how well-intentioned a statement is, the effect is still the same. To perpetrate an ignorant stereotype about the athletic abilities of blacks, however light-hearted the remark might be, still perpetrates that stereotype--and thus the effect is essentially the same as it would be had the remark been ill-intentioned. So, while a well-intentioned remark made out of ignorance might allow us to forgive the offender more easily, it doesn't make the damage any less bad.

CJ Milne

"I think, for example, that hate speech is more hateful the more specific it is."

This sounds good but is, I believe, nonspecific enough since the fundamental basis of racism is its general applicability towards an entire race or culture. The more specific its target is the less its impact. The owner of the opinion has obviously examined and reviewed their beliefs, resulting in a revision of their racist views. Conscious thought as applied to racism means there is hope for enlightenment.

The dichotomy of truly dangerous racism is it's perfect juxtaposition of the specific viewpoint and the generic target.



The Michael Irwin comment stands out to me because, as the sports blogs say, "if a white guy said that he'd have been shot by ESPN management". Context is king in our reactions to others' speech. I don't know if this is "good", but it happens anyway -- our judgements automatically excuse statements if our knowledge of the context tells us that the statement is "reasonable", aka if we understand and approve/allow the speaker's intention.

I also believe that he had no intention to harm - it was banter, and perhaps even a compliment, claiming additional similarity with Tony Romo. The dangerous part of the statement is our society's standing belief that black ancestry confers sports ability -- to the exclusion of other abilities.

We need a new label for this type of statement. It's the stereotype, not the statement, that reflects dark or unworthy beliefs. And that stereotype is in the ear of the listener.
I agree that -intention- is a good test for this. Intention is an important component to judging the severity of statements and actions, telling the difference between purposeful malicious speech and the insult hurled by a frustrated teen or an offhand comment by a media figure.

I'm glad you are delving into a label that has been over-applied. The "PC" movement hit when I was at college, and quickly became a tool used to curtail free speech and mutual understanding. There are so many barriers between people as it is; I don't want over-labelling to persist as another barrier between people in my society.


Another interesting angle you could explore is the sense of racism relative to the individual's own race.

White folks, for the most part, don't seem to have a real appreciation for how "white" society is (I'm a white male, btw). My impression is that white folks, by and large, think that racism is "over" or just blown out of proportion, while blacks and hispanics have the opposite experience with racism (go figure, they're usually on the receiving end of negative racist views).

Any grocery store will likely support this, just look at the people on the product packaging, or magazines, other shoppers, cashiers, etc. There are, in fact, other black people besides Oprah, Denzel, and Jay-Z, but that's all you'll see on magazine covers. I suspect that most white folks would be suprised to realize just how white their surroundings are.

Aubrey Cohen

While your analysis makes sense, I can't help but wonder if we are looking for a logical argument to justify what we feel at an emotional level: that Richards isn't as bad as Gibson.
You assert Richards gets a pass on conviction because he's a "prototypical Hollywood liberal, and he's clearly devastated by the notion that he might be considered a racist."
Wasn't Gibson similarly contrite?
Is the difference that Gibson isn't so liberal?
All that said, I still think you're basically right. I just hope we're not deluding ourselves.
I also wonder what to do with this analysis. Do we decide to forgive Richards but not Gibson? Can I, as a Jew, make the call on Richards?


Borat blurs the line between fiction and reality, but in the context of the film the character of Borat legitimately is saved by Jesus at a low point in his life. The scene in the Pentacostal service is not played for laughs, which is even more obvious when you take into account the tone of every other scene in the film. The movie clearly shows that while the Pentacostal ceremony is strange, it puts forward a positive message and outlook which is missing from other segments of the film.


One other key bit of mitigating evidence in Richards' case that everyone seems to be missing:

Richards, who is Jewish, previously tried almost the exact same routine on some Jewish hecklers - responding to them with intentionally offensive ethnic slurs.

This seems like a key point to me in evaluating Richards' case.


Another thing to point out about Richards' comments is that he wasn't only hurtful. He went further than calling the heckler a nigger. He said things like "Fourty years ago we would have strung you up and put a fork in your ass." That, to me, puts conviction into play again.

Someone doesn't come out and say things like that without having some deliberate thoughts. This wasn't the spewing of his subconscious, but the overtly hurtful opening of a Pandora's Box.

The more interesting thing about all of these situations is the sociological impact that they have. They re-open the hard conversations about race relations that we have periodically. These conversations tend to be shallow at best, and plain misguided at worst.

I would submit that any real large-scale talk about race relations in the US died with Martin Luther King. That singular event did more to harm the conversation than anything else. It put the whole idea back into the closet and we only peek into it when we absolutely have to.

There is even a movement to strike the word "nigger" from our language. The word is a part of our history, whether or not it's pleasant is not really an object of conversation. It is a word. It is something that we as a society assign a particular value to. Nigger is one of those horrible words that should only be uttered in appropriate context. But to say that it should be outright stricken from the language is ridiculous.

This is yet another symptom of lack of true consideration of the problems that we have between our many races. Open the closet and air the laundry for heaven's sake.


I think Michael Richards' case is not as innocuous as you would deem it to be here.

The tirade was not offensive just because he used a racial epithet, but because he used it within a plainly offensive context:

"Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a f------ fork up your a--."

That's not only offensive, it's violent and threatening and unique in tone amongst all your other examples... though Gibson's comment comes close.

Your three categories fail for me because all but one of them is completely subjective in terms of assessment. Measuring intent and conviction has become a completely unresolvable hornet's nest in two of these cases, because people simply can't know -- even if the performer says they "didn't mean it" and because lack of intention and conviction isn't much of an excuse, regardless.

I can't walk up to someone and say, "I hate you!" and then follow up with "Just kidding!" and expect no response.

Words go out for other people to receive, and they will rarely pause before taking offense to figure out what you mean. Racism is too charged a subject to expect people to make that leap for you, regardless of what framework you suggest for consideration.

And if people paid millions of dollars every year to choose their words don't make wise choices and bear that in mind, then they should suffer the consequences without anyone trying to justify it away for them.

I get that shock is a staple of humour... but it needs to be left to the realm of analysis of one's own culture. Anything else is too dangerous.


I've been working on for a while.

With regard to conviction, the definitions I use originate from Kwame Anthony Appiah's book In My Father's House, in which he seeks to define and then recoginize from those definitions the racism of various African and African American liberation movements. I think this is very important because it cuts to the quick of questions which can provide clear answers.

He begins with the premise of racialism, which is the belief that the human species is divided into separate and distinct races by bloodline and that there are mutually exclusive human attributes attached to blood. So one could ask the direct question: Precisely how many races are there? or 'Define inbreeding'.

The question of racism thus takes two forms based on the premise of racialism. The first is the mild form which is the kind I think most American racists believe. It's called 'extrinsic racism'. This is the belief that there is a moral component of race which warrants differential treatment. If you are an extrinsic racist you say blacks ARE different than whites and SHOULD be treated differently.

These differences are, to the extrinsic racist, not particularly controversial. The extrinsic racist, while maintaining the belief for example that Jews are greedy, might not feel anything wrong with befriending a Jew. The extrinsic racist might very well applaud the Jew who proves himself not greedy and call him a credit to his race.

The intrinsic racist says that the moral 'essence' of a race establishes an incontrovertible status for the race. No matter what an individual member of a race does he should be treated just like the rest of his race. The intrinsic racist would argue that the Jew is so greedy that he would hide his greed in order to gain other's confidence or that this generous person is simply not a Jew.

To extrinsic and intrinsic racists, racial conflict is inevitable.
I agree that because of the fact that you may get to know whether a person is a racialist or what type of racist they are, one must judge actions by their impact. 2+2 is never 5. When a child in kindergarten makes that mistake it is rarely of any consequence. When the Space Shuttle engineer makes that mistake lives hang in the balance and it becomes unforgivable. And in the latter case the results are so profound that it really doesn't matter what kind of math they believe in, they simply must be right.

So I've created a concept called 'effective resonance' which basically says that the impact of a racist act is relative to the strength of the individual perpetrator and the strength of the targetted race. (In this case I am using the 'social' standard of race - while a racist may note with genetic precision that he targets octaroons, Americans generally understand that as 'black'.)

For example, if you are told to go to the back of the bus in 2006 and give up your seat for a white person, it is certainly a racist act, but the impact of that act within the context of African American social power today is negligible even though it is fundamentally racist.


While I think the first commentator has a point about power dynamics in drawing a distinction between Chappelle's jokes about white people and Richards' outburst, I think there's another distinction, which I think is at least as important. Chappelle is funny. He's funny because he doesn't just exploit stereotypes or shock value, he actually uses his intellect, imagination, and observation to find and express some insights about people and society -- while playing with stereotypes and exploiting a little bit of shock value. Humor is always a subjective thing, but a defender of Richards's outburst would be hard pressed to argue that there was any kind of cleverness or insight behind it.


So, is comedy only racist if it isn't funny?

On a flight last night two very successful men in the business were seated next to me, one white, one black. Michael Richards' face flashed on the screen and they both laughed. Partially because it was so offensive, but partially because it was so pathetic--comedy gone utterly wrong.

But even Richard Pryor and Dave Chapelle (for my money, two of the best comedians in history) have questioned their own use of racial epithets. Pryor, after his first trip to Africa where he saw that all men were just...men. And Chapelle, when a white man on set laughed at one of his jokes in a way that made him realize he had just fed his prejudice.

When racial jokes are "funny", are they freeing us, or hurting us?


I don't think that malice is essential. Imagine a man who said (sincerely) that every man needs a woman to take care of him, clean up after him, and raise his kids, and to be tender and loving and loyal and docile and submissive. Even though he's expressing a positive attitude towards women, it's still extremely sexist. He's expressing an indefensible, highly specific stereotype about women which has been disadvantageous to women in many ways. Some social psychologists have conducted research on this kind of "benevolent sexism" and found, for instance, that higher levels of benevolent sexism within a culture are associated with greater subordination of women (see link, below).

I don't see any reason why racism couldn't be non-malicious in a similar way.

Mike B.

An interesting breakdown, but I don't know if I'd be so dismissive of folks who merely used epithets. Yes, sometimes the use of a ephithet must be evaluated in context. But the free use of derogatory racial terms is often evidence of the contempt and hatred that is at the root of racism -- a signifying that the person or persons being referenced are inferior.

Doug Karr

I wonder whether our own ambition to be 'politically correct' antagonizes racism. The fact that it's somehow rude to distinguish one an other by race, something so obvious, is incredulous since it's often the first thing we notice.

The difference between recognition of race and racism itself is whether a person prejudges the person based on that race. If we were taught to both recognize and respect our differences, I think society would be much better than to simply be taught to 'try' to ignore race altogether.



I'm a little shocked by the level of condemnation each of the incidents has gotten, not because racial slurs are OK, but because very few of us are in a position to condemn someone else's racism without some degree of hypocrisy. Why are we so quick to condemn those who reveal a very human failing which most of us share? As i-a-t.org admirably demonstrates, whether or not we're racist isn't much of a question for 70% of us. We may be less vocal and less famous than Richards or Gibson or Irvin but that proves mostly that we're more discreet, not better people. Discretion has it's place, but it's not a solution. The question I'm interested in is this - once you figure out you've got a problem, what do you do about it?


Considering the wealth of work already available on racism, specifically in the US, this is a pretty weak piece that is unclear and focuses a discussion in the wrong place.

I know that's not a huge contribution to you comments section, but I felt like it should be said - this piece isn't offering anything to an important discussion.


"black people have lower intelligence than whites"

Mean black IQ is indeed lower than mean white IQ. There is extensive research to back this up. To get started, take a look at the Wikipedia entry:


I do of course question whether you will actually allow this comment in your comments section. I guess I'll see about that.


Glad to see such informed discussion. I too think racism is the #1 issue confronting our society, but it becoming muted by others who claim global warming is #1. Regardless, after the death of MLK overt racism went underground...about two inches below the surface and it rears its head when the coast is clear. For years the coast was not clear in general discourse, but it is becoming more so since it is now "safe" to talk openly about affirmative action. Wow be unto us. The dominant society still does not get it. It will take another generation (mine) dying off before we improve beyond where we are today.

Thanks, Malcom, for giving the discussion an honorable place.


Making fun of religion is different, because you choose your religion.


I'm thinking about your specificity idea...if a person were to say "You're just a stupid whit/black person" or "All whites/blacks are stupid," the first is more specific, but I would say that the second is more heinous, because, if both are true, the person is making a much more racists statement in the second. Or, do we think the second is less bad because we believe it less and assume that the person cannot really believe it because it is rediculous?

Great article Malcolm, thanks.


Certainly an interesting discussion.

But I have a question about impact? Is there any real impact from a person like Gibson, Richards, or ever Chapelle or Pryor? Aren't they just men on stage/TV?

It seems like there's more impact on a personal, specific level. For instance, if a proprietor of a business won't serve a black person -- I've seen it happen. Or if an application for employment is passed over, due to race.

These have real-life implications for thousands every year, while a few comedians on TV may feed the fire, but aren't directly impacting anyone.

(Or maybe I'm a rare bird who isn't influenced by such things.)


First, pointy heads should not comment on sports. Then name is Michael IRVIN, not Irwin.

Second, as far a Richards goes, while I'm not excusing his outburst, I find it interesting that no one is making an issue out the persons in the audience that started this by calling him a "dumb cracker". Is that not racists, too? There clearly was malice in those comments. Or are Blacks not allowed to be accused of racism?


I think your first point couldn't be more wrong.

On paper, you're right, the n-word is just a name.

But what you're missing is the emotional content and history behind the word.

If someone speaks of statistics, and why blacks have lower IQs, etc -- fine, I'm happy to debate them.

If someone calls me the n-word, I would take it to mean that they are on the verge of becoming violent.

One is intellectual, the other is emotional -- and much more dangerous and aggressive in my opinion.


I think possibly the most important thing to take into consideration is that it is human nature to define an "Other," and the prejudice that results is pretty hard to avoid, if at all possible. Like you said, everyone has a harbors prejudicial thoughts about one group of people or another, and it's better to recognize this and be careful how it affects our judgement and actions than to deny it and make blunders unconsciously (as many do).

In fact, since we all are capable of harboring prejudicial thoughts, I think informing someone of their apparently racist idea should not be like throwing a molotov cocktail at them (unless the thought expressed was just as violent, in which case, it's probably not a good idea either).

Lastly, I've noticed that calling someone a racist is just as incendiary as hate speech. Sometimes it's used wrongly, as well, to be hateful. How about treating that? It's not exactly a way to bring people together and heal society to just lob the r-word at people. People need to be told when something they've said is morally wrong or the result of an obvious lack of knowledge, not backed into a corner and humiliated. That's just tit for tat, and not constructive in the least.

Imagine if someone had simply said that night, "Hey Michael RIchards, calm down now and ask yourself what are you doing? What did you just say? Do you really mean that?", right there when he snapped? And asked him to consider his words immediately, on stage. It would have been a totally different incident. I agree that what he said was along the lines of "I wish you were dead," because he was feeling humiliated due to heckling, and that his problems are more related to his sense of professional failure than to racism.

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