One of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld is the one where Kramer finagles his way into working at a company where he's not actually employed. He goes to the office every day, attends meetings, and writes business reports. But he's not on the payroll. Kramer's "boss" ultimately fires him, citing his lousy performance. "There's just no way we could keep you on," he tells him.
Truly distraught, Kramer says, "But I don't even work here."
"That's what makes this so difficult," laments his boss.
I laugh out loud every time I watch that scene. But it's hard to laugh at Kramer's antics these days.
By now you've probably seen the incriminating video of actor Michael Richards onstage at a Los Angeles comedy club. After being heckled by a couple of black men in the audience, Richards snaps, cutting loose with a lengthy rant that features not only a generous helping of the N-word but also a vicious reference to lynching ("Fifty years ago, we'd have you upside down "). One woman in the stunned audience can be heard uttering, "Oh my God!"
Richards was great as Jerry Seinfeld's zany neighbor Cosmo Kramer. He imbued the character with just the right mix of lunacy, earnestness, and desperation. His nervous twitches and nonsensical outbursts made him a loveable nutcasecertifiably crazy, yet somehow charming in his madness.
That's why it was so shocking to see him erupting into hateful rage during his standup routine. Everyone expects Kramer to be "out of control," but not like this.
Seeing Richards's explode was like learning that a favorite performer has died. No one wants to believe a guy whose talents you've enjoyed for so long is actually a bigot. Yet there it was; the cell-phone video doesn't lie.
Days later, while appearing on David Letterman's Late Show to offer an apology to "Afro-Americans" (or whatever we're calling ourselves these days), Richards said, "I'm not a racist! That's what's so insane about this." His appearance on the program was both sad and disturbing. The actor seemed genuinely confused by his actions, shocked by his own inner fury.
In the days following the event, civil-rights pundits went into high gear, denouncing Richards as a racist and holding him up as just one more example of why things haven't changed much. Richards hired Howard Rubinstein, a crack PR manager, to do damage control, and soon the comedian was on the Rev. Jesse Jackson's syndicated radio program, offering further mea culpas. "I'm shattered by it," he said. "The way this came through me was like a freight train." He told Jackson that the rant was triggered by anger, not bigotry. He was humiliated onstage and wanted to hurt those who had hurt him.
But can someone honestly dissect bigotry from the malicious use of racial epithets? Probably not. Racism, like other sins, would ask us to call it by a less harmful-sounding name. In the final analysis, however, sin is sin. And, frankly, who among us hasn't found himself astonished by the degree of depravity within? "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I don't do, but what I hate I do," said the apostle Paul in a tongue twister reminiscent of, well, Cosmo Kramer (Rom. 7:15).
Like Filthy Rags
As an African American, I suppose I should be infuriated by Richards's tirade. Yet I cannot help feeling sympathy for the man. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Call me gullible, but I believed him when he said he was sorry. I think he was telling the truth when he said he had no idea where that rage was coming from.
Don't get me wrong. There's no excuse for what Richards did that night. As a society, we need to make it clear that there's no place for that kind of uglinesswhether it's from Richards, Mel Gibson, or the latest bestselling rap artist. But by trashing the man along with his behavior, we're missing an opportunity to redeem a terrible moment and foster an environment where this kind of thing is less likely to happen.
What have been most unsettling for me are the opinions I've seen posted across the Internet regarding Richards's diatribe. People have either written him off as an evil jerk who deserves no mercy or used it as an opportunity to lash out against what they perceive as America's double standard on race ("Why is it okay for black comics to use the N-word, but then everyone gets bent out of shape when a white guy does it?"). Neither of these approaches is helpful in addressing the issue at hand.
If we respond with likeminded vitriol, we confirm the ignorance that Richards spouted. By jumping on the "reverse discrimination" soapbox, we're changing the subject in a disingenuous way and indulging our own racial hang-ups.
The truth is, all of us have darkness dwelling in our souls. "All of our righteousness is like filthy rags," says the prophet Isaiah. Most of us are just a bad day away from "going off" in a fashion to rival both Richards and Gibson. In today's cultural climate (which has no tolerance for intolerance), the rule is to castigate these kinds of offenders and mark them as unforgivable. A rebuke is certainly in order, but why not also leave the door open for redemption? In fact, if we were really on the ball, we'd use their mistakes as an opportunity to diagnose our own personal demons and constructively engage the subject of race in America.
Earlier this year, a white talk-radio host in St. Louis was summarily fired after he inadvertently referred to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a "big coon" while attempting to say that Rice running for president would be a "big coup." It was a bizarre slip of the tongue, for sure. But the man recognized his error at once and apologized profusely. He could not, however, save his job.
After hearing about that incident and listening to an audio clip, I wondered what good it had done to fire that host. I don't pretend to know what was going on in that man's subconscious or what led him to such a spectacular blunder. But I believe he was truly sorry. And so did Rice, who graciously accepted his apology.
That, of course, was not the first time a white person has been dismissed from a high-profile job for violating racial etiquette. Over the last couple decades, there have been countless instances. Back in 1988, CBS fired its popular sports pundit Jimmy the Greek for his ill-advised comments about how the superiority of black athletes could be traced back to slave-breeding practices. In 1999, a white City Hall official was forced to resign in Washington, D.C., after using the word "niggardly" (which has no linguistic relation to the N-word) during a budget meeting, even though he used it in its proper context and intended no racial malice. And who can forget conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh's short-lived gig as an ESPN football commentator in 2003? After suggesting that the media has a bias in favor of black quarterbacks, Limbaugh, who came to the job with a history of racially insensitive quips, was shown the door. Right or wrong, whenever these kinds of firings take place, I wonder whether our culture has missed a golden chance to address the deeper issues at play. What if, instead of firing the accused parties, we used their gaffes to open an honest conversation about institutionalized racism in our organizations? What if, instead of turning them into scapegoats, we used their situations to demonstrate the power of forgiveness and restoration?
Our society's hyper political correctness has made it virtually impossible to move the cultural conversation on race beyond the standard platitudes. As long as we avoid certain words and say the right things, all is well. And when someone does mess up, we hang him out to dry as proof of our own moral superiority. But what, exactly, does this accomplish?
The positive thing about disturbing public moments like the Richards debacle is that they strip away all pretenses and force us to deal openly with ugly secrets we'd just as soon keep hidden. As Ted Haggard would probably tell you, it's often impossible to move forward to a place of true rehabilitation from our private sins until we've been found out in a very public way.
Beyond the Symbols
Nowadays in our secular culture, transgressions like racism and intolerance get dealt with swiftly, if not constructively. In the church, however, we still find it difficult to address issues of race and social justice with a unified voice. Yet it's the holistic transformation that comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ that should make Christians leaders in this arena.
About 14 years ago, I got a firsthand view of how God can deepen our understanding of racial matters. I was fresh out of college and beginning my career at Christianity Today International. When my telephone rang late one evening, the last person I expected to hear from was a grade-school classmate. "Kal," whom I hadn't spoken to in more than a decade, had tracked down my number through directory assistance. "Ed, I'm so glad I was able to find you, man," he told me. "There's something I've been wanting to tell you for years." I listened attentively, wondering what on earth an elementary-school acquaintance could possibly have to tell me that was so important.
It turns out Kal had recently become a Christian, and something he had said in my presence when we were both hormonally challenged adolescents was nagging at his spirit. One weekend during sixth grade, I was at Kal's house working on an art project with a group of other boys. At one point, Kal and two other white boys in our group were horsing around, when Kal jokingly said to one of them, "You are such a nigger!" There was a burst of laughter, followed by an "Oops" and an uncomfortable recognition of what had just happened. I remember laughing nervously too, mainly because I didn't know what else to say. The moment passed quickly, and we got on with our work. I had all but forgotten about the incident, but Kal hadn't. He had been carrying it around with him all those years. After he became a believer, it occurred to him that he should do something about it.
"Ed," he said, "I just want you to know how sorry I am for what I said that day. It was wrong, and I didn't know any better then. That's how I was raised. But I know better now."
Kal and I went on to have a long conversation about racism, Christianity, and what it means to live out our faith. I think Kal experienced real healing during that phone call. I know I did.
Until we deal with our questions and misgivings about race relations in an open and frank manner, we'll never move beyond the prevailing "keep the peace" rituals. In committed relationships, where there's trust, we can feel free to ask each other "rude" questions like "Why do whites insist on running the show whenever we try to work together?" or "Why is it that many immigrant groups can come into this country, work hard, and rise successfully into the middle class, yet African Americans seem tied to a victim mentality?" It's easier to police the use of the N-word and certain types of behavior than to create an environment where people can safely explore these issues without losing their jobs or being labeled a bigot. Keeping these things bottled inside, I think, is a big part of our problem today. Those suppressed feelings of prejudice, resentment, or bitterness will eventually find their way to daylight in an unpleasant wayperhaps in a conference room, or during a traffic stop, or at a comedy club.
Which brings me back to Michael Richards. The actor's PR guy informed the media that Richards has already begun psychiatric counseling to manage his anger. I sincerely hope he's able to do that and move on with his life. But more than that, I hope he's able to get to the spiritual root of his problems and experience true restoration. The kind of nastiness that came out of his mouth will require more than high-powered spin-doctoring and surface-level therapy to expunge.
We may never be able to laugh at Kramer the same way again. But if he could somehow help us be more honest with ourselves about the insidious nature of racial sin and our need to address it in more substantiveand not just symbolicways, then perhaps a comedian's startling outburst could inspire a profound season of healing and truth.
Edward Gilbreath is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity (InterVarsity Press, 2006).
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Edward Gilbreath's book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity, is available at Christianbook.com and other retailers.
The video of Michael Richards's comedy club outburst (warning: lots of profanity and offensive language) is available on YouTube. He later apologized on Jesse Jackson's radio show and on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Other Christianity Today articles on race and reconciliation include:
Behold, the Global Church| It's time we figured out how to talk--and listen--to one another. (November 17, 2006)
Catching Up with a Dream| Evangelicals and Race 30 Years After the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. By Edward Gilbreath (March 2, 1998)
CT Classic: Catching Up with a Dream (Part 2)| Church as Conscience (January 1, 2000)
CT Classic: Catching Up with a Dream (Part 3)| Just Not Getting It (January 1, 2000)
We Can Overcome| A CT forum examines the subtle nature of the church's racial divisionand offers hope. (October 2, 2000)
Divided by Faith?| A recent study argues that American evangelicals cannot foster genuine racial reconciliation. Is our theology to blame? (October 2, 2000)
Matters of Opinion: Racial Reconciliation: After the Hugs, What?| The next step for racial reconciliation will be harder. February 3, 1997)