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Justin Vickers

There is a crucial fourth criteria that hasn't been addressed: effect. The severity of a crime is tied to the effect. One gets a lesser sentence for committing attempted murder than murder. It goes the other way as well. One might be guilty of murder for killing a person whom one merely meant to injure. This way of judging extends beyond the law and into morally culpability. This is most obvious in the case of unintentionally doing something really good. We want to praise those who make decisions with good moral outcomes, even when the outcome was not intended. We don't just pat them on the back, we literally call them "good people". I think this holds true for condemning actions as well (albeit to a lesser extent). If I am an adult considered to be a competent moral decision-maker, then I can certainly be held morally responsible for unintended consequences of my actions. Richards might not have had much in the way of conviction, but the effects of his speech acts must be taken into consideration. He meant to wound a few individuals. Instead, he has wounded a great many individuals. Maybe it was dumb luck that the performance was being taped and he's a celebrity, but it doesn't change the facts that his comments have impacted more than those he intended to wound.

This leaves us the with the question of what it means if the speech act didn't do much harm? Say Richards was not famous or there was no camera in the club. Does the lack of impact lesson our outrage and claims of racism? Were his acts less racist? I think, yes, but I'm not sure. I see no reason why it has to be a two-way street, but I'm tempted to say that it is (although one direction might take you further than the other). I would put considerations of effect last on the list that you have offered, but to ignore them is to ignore a big part of why racism is so toxic. It isn't just about the person holding the beliefs, but on the effects of those beliefs on other human beings. Only acknowledging effects do prejudiced epithets gain or lose power. The reclaiming of the word 'queer' could not be possible unless the effect of the term changed the degree to which the speakers are guilty of prejudice. I doubt that it is simply a matter of figuring out who meant to be hurtful and who didn't. Some people who didn't mean it are still guilty and some who did mean it might be less guilty (but I'm less sure about this).

Jonathan Dobres

All other things being equal, the difference between a celebrity and the average person is that a celebrity is in the public eye to a much greater extent. A celebrity's content, intention, and conviction on any given racial slur may not differ from a non-celebrity's, but context almost certainly will, given the very different social position that the celebrity enjoys (or suffers).

So, let's look at the context in which these remarks were made. Richards's comments are shocking in that his first response to a black heckler was a graphic crack about lynching. The two explanations here are a) Richards is abhorrently racist or b) he was trying to improvise some shock comedy. The second option is much more likely, as he then comments to the audience that, "Oh yes, this shocks you!" It was, I believe, a terrible misstep in an attempt to follow in the path of Family Guy or Borat.

The story is different with Mel Gibson. He was not in a public setting, nor was he trying to entertain. He was alone with a police officer, pulled over for erratic driving. Yet the first words out of his mouth are anti-semitic slurs. I fail to see how his being drunk should excuse such comments. If anything, his comments in this unguarded, private context represent a disturbingly genuine anti-semitism.

Context, I think, does a much better job of revealing someone's true intention and conviction. So, Michael Richards said something dumb, but Mel Gibson is a racist.


Are you saying that because he's a hollywood liberal, he can't be racist?? Or if, instead, he was a conservative, it is more possible that he is a racist? I don't know what your grounds are for suggesting that a certain political viewpoint is consistent with a racist tendency.


There is a danger here of letting our morality guide our science. While, of course, I seriously doubt it's true, for example, that there is any relationship between greed and Jews or Presbyterians, it's important that we not entirely dismiss the idea merely on the grounds that it's distasteful. I assume that African-Americans dominate the highest levels of many professional sports for cultural/sociological reasons rather than genetic reasons, but we ought not to dismiss the second possibility out of hand merely because it's associated in practice with clear-cut racism. We must allow for the possibility that the truth is offensive.
I heard a distinguished geneticist lecture on the book "The Bell Curve." He demolished the central argument of that book (which I haven't read) and showed that it relied on a particular mistake in the interpretation of data. He said this was a common mistake, but later in the lecture he claimed that the authors had made that mistake because they were racists. I don't know whether, or to what extent, the authors are racist, but it seemed to me unforgivable for a scientist to attack a work of science (even a deeply flawed one) by attacking its authors. The danger is that this sort of thing will have a chilling effect on research. The message it sends is, If you undertake a scientific study, you had better come up with inoffensive conclusions.

Aubrey Cohen

Someone here asserted Richards was Jewish. As the Associated Press explained, Richards did claim to be Jewish, but "has not converted to Judaism and neither of his parents are Jewish."
Someone else said:
"Making fun of religion is different, because you choose your religion."
If this is a reference to Gibson's remarks, it's worth noting that Jewish is an identity that goes beyond religion. Many would still consider me a Jew even if I gave up my religion. To a significant extent, so would I.

Lawrence Stitt

This comment deals with race, but is unrelated to this post. Rather, I would like to address the recent shooting of a 23 year-old black man, Sean Bell, by NYC police officers. In your book Blink, you discuss the shooting of another 23 year-old black man, Amadou Diallo, also killed by NYC police officers. To the best of your knowledge, how do the two shootings compare? Is the fact that the officers in the Sean Bell shooting were white, black, and Hispanic incidental, or might it offer some evidence to support that the Diallo shooting was not race motivated, as you have suggested in Blink?


I agree to some extent. The fact that Michael Richards used the N word are not what most bothers me. It is the comments that he said along with that like '50 years ago you would be haning from a tree with a fork up your @$$' and 'don't you know not to interrupt a white man when he is speaking' that to me has racist written all over it. The N word was just the icing on the cake.

Evan D.

As an interesting addition to the discussion, from today's Slate:



I agree with Lawrence--it's not the fact that Richards called these two young men n***ers, but what else he said with that--the lynching and the ritual that surrounds that act. Plus the passion in dude's voice when he is making these remarks can not be chalked up to 'oh he was just addressing the heckling.' No, what he said came from his heart/his gut and with the lynching context, his past obviously.

Bobby Dragulescu

I think that you do a good job of breaking down the criteria, but there is one that you've possibly missed that would level the playing field between Gibson, Irvin and Richards: Environment.

Some environments are definitely more hospitable to politically incorrect thoughts than others. Take comedy, for example. Watch any of Comedy Central's Roasts (the ones that air late night, without the bleeps) and you'll hear comments much more outrageous than Richards'. People laugh... sometimes so hard that they cry. This is an arena where, for one night, everyone can pull out the big guns and attack.

Police officers are also trained to deal with belligerent behavior. This means that a cop can come to expect some level of hate speech thrown in their direction on a typical shift. Certainly not all jobs take this detail into consideration, so it must be assumed that it is more commonplace here.

To the contrast, addressing a national crowd on prime time television certainly has a higher set of standards. Imagine if President Bush let slip a Chappellesque reference during a speech. I'm not saying it's right, but this is the world we live in.


Re: Why Richards is less racist
than Mel Gibson

Kramer is simply not as threatening
as Mad Max.

I'd rather have Cosmo as the Tobacco Baron than
The Road Warrior guarding the camps at Auschwitz. Wouldn't you?

Chris P

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and I think your definition is eloquent, unemotional and works well in the real world (though we could all argue for days about the application of the definition).
People always have a hard time accepting that one person can say something that another other person can not but your Intent and Conviction factors explain well why that is the case.
People also have a hard time accepting that there is a humor safe harbor for otherwise racist comments. Again if a comedians intent is to make people laugh and he doesn't mean what he says, it is hard to consider such person a racist.
As you point out Richards failed the intention test but I don't think its that easy to determine where his conviction lies.

matthew j.x. malady

I Love your work generally, and I think much of the comment above is well-reasoned.

That said, I can't help but think that you've missed something (and, more importantly, something harmful) when you state:

"Richard Pryor or Dave Chapelle's use of the word 'nigger,' [is fine, because there is a complete absence of malice in the comment]."

I've heard this said about Chappelle's work in the past, and each time it has struck me as an odd argument that is inherently flawed.

Here's why:

In making such an assertion, it seems as though you are only considering the potential harm or impact on the minority group that results directly from the relevant speech immediately as it is uttered.

In my mind, though, such a perspective is far too narrow when you consider the audience and influence that entertainers have in our culture.

So, for instance, if Dave Chappelle puts together broadcasts that make use of speech that could indeed be seen as racist or hateful in a certain context (even if, as you suggest, that context is not necessarily the one that exists as he is making said statements) and creates various skits that play into or perpetuate stereotypes that persist about a racial group he belongs to . . . is it not possible that he is in fact doing harm in a more indirect way than we're used to thinking about?

By example (that's 100% fictitious):

If my younger brother, who is white, watches the Chappelle Show and is not savvy enough to make any determinations about what is or isn't satire--or about when something is being done to harmlessly poke fun at African Americans about various stereotypes--isn't harm being done if my brother starts buying into what's going on at a face value level?

Isn't Chappelle (or, if put into another context, Borat) at least partially culpable if my brother never exhibited any racist behavior prior to seeing Dave's show, but after season two can be heard repeating various stereotypes or inherently racist notions about African Americans or calling his (white) friends the "n" word?

And, to take that notion to an extreme, what if that muck builds up and results in him taking some action that is fueled by racism? Or what if he commits a hate crime?

Sure, as an individual my younger brother would be to blame, and no reasonable person would assert otherwise. But hasn't something else gone on there, as well? Something that, in fact, most certainly does result in a harm (albeit indirect) to the exact group Chappelle's work is aimed at.

To assume that everyone gets the joke when one member of a racial group mocks or degrades other members of that group is to, I feel, assume too much. And to put something into the mainstream entertainment industry that has the potential to create more racists isn't an action that should be easily written off as devoid of harm.

To matter-of-factly state that Chappelle's actions are "fine" in all cases is something I simply cannot agree with. (And, to be fair, that is not what you said above either, but rather an argument I've heard raised in discussions on the topic.)

Is he funny: hell yes.

Do i get the jokes: yes.

Is there no harm in his clever and often ingenious jabs: I think that's a tough argument to make--and an especially difficult one to make in only one sentence, as you do above.

When a celebrity takes an express action that clearly has the potential to create more racists in this world, I would assert that harm is being done. It is, of course, possible that the value of said action could outweigh the harm that's being done. But there is still harm there.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not urging a ban or boycott of Chappelle, or Borat, or whomever is the hot new controversial comedian of the moment. I understand what they do, and i fully believe that they have a right to do it. Hell, in some instances, there's even some value to their skits.

But just because something does not rise to the extreme level of being appropriate for banishment from our airwaves does not mean that it should necessarily be given the pass that something receives when it is labeled as "fine."

Thanks for your time, and keep up the great work at The New Yorker.



Regarding the notion of "conviction": The things that a person says when they're drunk or emotional aren't necessarily untrue, sometimes they're just uncensored (I doubt any thinking person believes that Gibson's drunken rant bore no relation to his sober views).

Others here have pointed out the crowing reference that Richards made to lynching, and the numerous times he called his heckler the n-word. If you've seen the clip on YouTube, you'll know that it was extremely vicious. Where does that come from, if not from Richards' own feelings? Of all the things that the heckler was, and of all the ways Richards could have insulted him, why choose those words? Such feelings don't appear out of nowhere once you've had a few drinks or become riled up.

Of course Richards is devastated by the idea that he might be viewed as a racist - I think he's also concerned by the idea that he may actually BE a racist, which I think he is.

A side-issue here is Richards' televised apology on Letterman. The audience laughed and giggled throughout, and the tone of the program was as if Richards had suffered some kind of traumatic experience; as if he were the victim. Letterman and Seinfeld tried desperately to find excuses for Richards behavior, and no-one even said the word "racist" until Richards announced, late in the interview, that he wasn't one. It was a shocking display of how little this country cares about anti-black racism, and it's hard to imagine that things would have gone the same way if Richards' rant had been similar in content to Gibson's.

Richards did a lot more than call someone a name. The difference between name-calling and racism is power, and Letterman's show demonstrated just how little power black Americans have.


It's good to see "alex" throw out a Wikipedia link in an authoritative sense and then play the "OMG will this be censored??" card. Since the study only focuses on the US, clearly that means that it distributes to the races worldwide. No, wait, it doesn't.


Let me get this straight, Michael Richards "gets a pass" because he's a reliable Democrat voter? This is extremely disturbing, but perhaps enlightening of the liberal mindset. Richards not only used a racial epithet, but also told these individuals they'd have been lynched with a pitchfork up their asses back in the (apparently) good 'ol days.


Wow, you are a treasure, clearly one of the best writers going today.

I love your distinction between degrees or types of racism. While all racism is negative, to pretend that all racism is the same does not allow us to acknowledge when something truly heinous has happened, as opposed to the mildly offensive variety of Richards or Irvin. Keep up the good work.


Race relations in the U.S. is a complex matter. The sort of white supremacist utterance that Richard's made is quite rare in public speeach these days, but in private it might be a bit more common, though far, far less than before the 1960s But I agree that everyone in this society is tainted by some degree of it.

In Richard's case it's possible he was genuinely surpised at his just below the surface prejudices and perhaps he should be given some slack if he seems genuinely contrite and not merely trying to save his career.

The larger question is the state of race relations now and the bulk of the problem is either institutional practices or low-level but still deadly prejudice---not the blatant kind.

There was a tv show earlier this year called Black/White which attempted to address this--albeit in a gimmicky and often simple-minded way. I've written on the show and the evolution of white racism on my blog at www.differentdrummer.typepad.com and readers might find some of the analysis helpful.


I'm glad to see some discussion of what it means when we say someone is or isn't a racist. I comment on this here: http://workingthrough.typepad.com/perspectives/2006/12/gladwell_on_ric.html

If self-linking in a comment is poor etiquette, I apologize. I'm new at link-whoring.

I also speculate that Richards may have been in the throes of a manic episode. I'd like to see some discussion of this possibility -- not so much to pry into Richards' private life or excuse his behavior, but to raise public awareness about this common affliction.

I compare it to a man clutching his chest and falling down -- it doesn't mean that he's having a heart attack, but it should be one of the possibilities everyone considers.


Thank you for a humane and thoughtful analysis.

I would collapse conviction and intention and call that criteria: belief. This assumes that intention=belief=identity.

My 3rd criteria would be desire: is that what the person wants to believe and if not, what would the person rather believe.

I think the subconscious reason (or purpose) for lashing out, and using hurtful words (content) represents our individual and collective anger rooted in fear of change and denial that we have choice in our beliefs.

From this perspective, it seems to me that both Michael Richards and Mel Gibson (as well as the black comedians and rappers)are painfully stuck in contradiction between holding on to old, worn-out identity (including racist beliefs about themselves and others) and taking radical responsibility for becoming their desired, better version of themselves (which they almost desperately try to express).

Focusing on blame, judgment, semantics and celebrity obsession seems to be our collectively unconscious way to resist change and avoid deep understanding of the weaknesses we all share and our compassionate natures that we deny.

Hopefully, these incidents will provide some catalyst for individual and collective change because the more we hurl insults, bullets and bombs, the more apparent it becomes that our wounds are largely self-inflicted.

Daniel Roberts

Interesting comments.

I would say that Irwin's comment wasnt so inconsiderate or anything, but was, as you say, a lighthearted joke that in any other forum could have been well received. However, people criticized him as a racist because, in truth, he said what he said in the wrong scenario: a non comedic program. Similarly, this explains why Michael Richards' apology was so ridiculous and inadequate: sure, he was completely unprepared, but more importantly, he chose a totally inappropriate forum to make a very serious and somber apology: a humor program. Hence the awkward laughter at his apology on Letterman. Clearly, the context that controversial statements are made in contribute in varying ways to how those statements are taken and deciphered. I wrote a relevant piece on this in my school paper:


Greg Hart

I think one of the contextual effects that people are alluding to is the notion of permission. If people with acknowledged status (celebrity or otherwise)who have broadband access to large numbers of people routinely transmit racial or other types of stereotyping comments, there is a high likelihood that they will start to alter the context of permission. There is no hermetically sealed environment to stop this kind of leakage.

On Richards, he was addressing some African American people directly and it is plausible that his damaged pride dipped into the most damaging resevoir just as can happen in a domestic fight. Gibson, on the other hand, just started beaking off to the nearest guy about the Jews. That is a much less defensible situation.


I don't disagree with most of the comments however, I think many are missing one of Gladwell's points.

Sometimes anger forces people to say things that are meant to harm, but not necessarily what they believe.

Michael Richard's situation is far different than Mel Gibson. He was on stage, heckled, and extremely agitated. He saw that the source of his anger was a black man, and said the first thing he could think of that would hurt that person, in particular.

I am not trying to search for a pass for Michael Richards; however, I'm sure that any one of us, if asked to come up with a hurtful, racist comment, could easily say one, and not believe it. Did his anger cloud his judgment to a point where he tried to find the most hurtful thing to say to a black person in the audience, without thinking of the consequence of that action? Is it possible that he made a mistake out of anger alone?

Does that make him a racist? We will never really know, but either way - he is paying for his mistake in the court of public opinion.

L.  Stitt

I posted on this thread earlier today about the book Blink and about the recent NYC shooting involving an unarmed black man. That post seems to have been deleted, however, and someone using my name, Lawrence Stitt, has submitted a comment. I'd like to know what this is about...

L. Stitt

Nevermind, the formatting of the comment boxes and the signature confused me. Apparently, I'm not the only one who was confused... Someone who posted later agreed with a comment they thought I made, but was actually made by the person directly above me.

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  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

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