Want to ruin your career? Utter a racist remark. And keep in mind that your words don’t truly have to be racist to draw condemnation. Statements divined by the professional race merchants to be merely “racially insensitive” are often enough to trigger ritual denunciations and public humiliation.
This rule, however, only applies if you’re not a leader of the racial aristocracy. (We’ll leave discussion of “homophobic” and “gender insensitive” remarks for another day.)
With the ugly, racist comments from actor/comedian Michael Richards still fresh in our minds, let’s review some prominent examples from recent decades of people who violated the taboo. Then we can draw some lessons for the future.
– Blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager” in baseball,” baseball executive Al Campanis said on Nightline. Also, he said blacks are not good swimmers “because they don’t have the buoyancy.” Campanis, who was a friend of baseball great Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier, was forced to resign over his remarks two days later.
– Legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell said during a broadcast on ABC’s Monday Night Football that elusive Washington Redskins player Alvin Garrett (an African American) was a “little monkey.” Cosell, who had done much to promote black athletes such as Muhammad Ali, was forced to resign from MNF over the controversy, even though his defenders say he used the same description for players of other ethnic groups.
– “I still can’t find my wallet. I don’t understand him, and I don’t want to sit close to him now.” So said baseball broadcaster Steve Lyons, joking after colleague Lou Pinella spoke of the luck of finding a wallet, and then briefly used some Spanish phrases. Fox Sports fired Lyons, who had made several other remarks deemed insensitive over the years, from his playoff assignment. The L.A. Dodgers, who employed Lyons during the regular season, announced they would keep him on if he underwent diversity training.
– “I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in [Eagles quarterback Donovan] McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.” So said Rush Limbaugh, who was forced to resign as a football analyst for ESPN, even though his criticism (though perhaps off the mark concerning McNabb) was directed at the media.
– “Somewhere there are some brothers. . . . [Maybe] his great, great, great, great grandma ran over in the hood or something went down. … Great, great, great, great Grandma pulled one of them studs up outta the barn.” ESPN personality Michael Irvin, who is black, said this about the athletic ability of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who is white. So far Irvin, who got into trouble as a player for using prostitutes and drugs, still has his ESPN gig.
– “Because [the Winter Olympics] are so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. … So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention.” So said pompous broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, who is black. Gumbel has just started a gig as a play-by-play announcer for the NFL Network.
– After two black audience members heckled him at the Laugh Factory comedy club, Michael Richards retorted: “Shut up! Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a f—— fork up your a–. … You can talk, you can talk, you’re brave now mother——. Throw his a– out. He’s a n—–!” Richards apologized on the Letterman show, but black leaders said this wasn’t enough and that he needs sensitivity training. Richards was scheduled to appear on Jesse Jackson’s radio show to make another apology. The club has banned him.
– In the infamous Tawana Brawley case, a 15-year-old black girl claimed that she had been assaulted and raped by six white men, some of them police officers. The claim, later found to be fraudulent, was hyped by black “community activist” Al Sharpton, who accused without evidence New York prosecutor Steven Pagones of being one of the men involved. Pagones later was awarded $345,000 in a defamation suit. Sharpton, a minister, refused to apologize, and one of his rich friends paid for him. Sharpton also contributed to the Crown Height Riots by accusing “diamond merchants” [Hasidic Jews] of shedding “the blood of innocent babies.” Sharpton has since been a candidate for president in the Democratic primaries.
– Jesse Jackson once said President Nixon didn’t do much about poverty in the U.S. because “four out of five [of Nixon’s top advisors] are German Jews and their priorities are on Europe and Asia.” Jackson once remarked that he was “sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust”; that “very few Jewish reporters that have the capacity to be objective about Arab affairs.” He has referred to Jews as “hymies” and to New York City as “Hymietown.” Jackson remains a fixture of racialized activism in the Democratic Party.
– “The black is a better athlete because he’s been bred to be that way,” gambling oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek told a CBS television crew. “During slave trading, the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big, black kid, see. That’s where it all started.” A disgraced Jimmy the Greek was fired.
Mel Gibson, of course, said the following during a traffic arrest: “F—–g Jews. The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Gibson was drunk at the time and said later that the words did not represent what was in his heart. Jewish groups, already suspicious of Gibson because of his father’s anti-Semitic beliefs and because of his film The Passion of the Christ, were slow to forgive.
– White House tapes recorded evangelist Billy Graham saying little about the anti-Semitic rants of his friend Richard Nixon. A frail Graham apologized, but his sterling reputation was tarnished.
– Football great Reggie White, since deceased, addressing the Wisconsin legislature, praised various ethnicities for their gifts, including blacks for their worship, Hispanics for their commitment to family, Asians for their creativity, and whites for their managerial acumen. White said the groups together reveal a more complete picture of the image of God. White, who habitually used his fame and fortune to help the less fortunate, was the brunt of widespread ridicule, though his remarks (though stereotypical) disparaged no group.
What do all these incidents tell us?
1. Four decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, racism and racial insensitivity still are deeply woven into the fabric of American life. We have a long way to go before all people are judged by (as King said) the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, and before (as Reagan said) we live in a “colorblind society.”
2. Politically incorrect racial and ethnic attitudes remain the unforgivable sin for white America, which is still working through its presumed guilt over slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing racial inequalities.
3. Privileged black race merchants (such as Jackson and Sharpton) continue to play the race card against the white establishment, for their own fun and profit. As author Shelby Steele, a conservative black academic, has said, black leaders play on white racial guilt and their need for redemption by continually demanding preferential treatment and entitlements for blacks, who become dependent, which hinders their social development. You can almost see the glee in their faces when a prominent white such as Michael Richards utters racist horrors, because they can again claim racial innocence and moral superiority. From that perch they can grab even more benefits for their groups, and power for themselves.
4. Any claims of natural differences between races and cultures (even benign ones) trigger outrage.
5. Blacks can indulge in their own stereotypes without fear of being called to account (unless, like Reggie White, they are conservative).
6. Jews, surely one of the best off groups in this country, continue to view statements through the long lens of historical anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Though few Americans care on a practical level whether a person is Jewish, Jews are ever on the alert against slights, real and imagined.
Where do we go from here? First, I don’t think that blacks should lose their livelihoods for racial remarks, too. In fact, no one should be fired for racial stereotyping and “insensitivity.” It’s a free country. Let’s let the First Amendment apply to all groups equally.
Second, the moral double standard must go. Though there should not be legal sanctions, surely moral opprobrium is sometimes called for—and for all groups. Let’s work on our speech, and on our hearts.
It hardly helps the cause of blacks when their spokesmen indulge in reverse racism without consequence when a white receives swift and harsh punishment for the slightest malapropism. Black America can no longer afford such indulgences, which seem to say that blacks are incapable of serious and sustained thought.
Equal rights are a given. Now it’s time for equal responsibilities.