A Freight Train of Hate: Michael Richards and the N-Word

Reducing a history of racial suffering — as evoked by Michael Richards’ reference to lynching — to a problem of personal feeling to be remedied spotlights America’s race problem.

Following Michael Richards’ epithet-laden outburst at hecklers at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, in November, people first questioned whether it proved he is a racist. Then they rushed to consider a related question: Is he sufficiently contrite? Once the sincerity of Richards’ apology was weighed, the much-reported story took a stranger turn: Some bloggers and commentators wondered, “Are Richards’ victims truly innocent?” and “Should the hecklers apologize to Richards?”

For example, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote, “It is not the vilified group that’s hurt by the insult, but the person making it.” MikieNes on Huffington Post wrote, “The targets of his venting were hardly blameless.… They were both nasty and seem to have gleefully seized upon the opportunity to make some quick cash.” DrLarry57, bemoaning the “double standard” on the same blog, skeptically pondered why “Richards is exclusively in the wrong and the young black ‘hecklers’ are apparently blameless.”

Perhaps more important than the answer to any of these questions is how the circumstances of the incident came to prompt them. In America, discussions about race are limited by the moral emotionalism that characterizes political claims. When one’s true nature is held to be exposed in revelatory moments like Richards’ tirade, questions of racial justice are reduced to questions of psychology, and psychologizing race issues not only ignores but gives cover to state and institutional racism, rationalizing the instabilities of victim politics and the weak vision of future equality it offers.

We seem both shocked and fascinated with people revealing their inner racism. Senator George Allen, the frat boys and homophobes in Larry Charles’ Borat, and Richards were all “caught on tape”, a phrase that suggests both elements of the illicit and the elicited, that which is insidiously unmasked. Being caught on tape — with the attendant gotcha moment of revelation — allows the audience to regard what’s expressed as symptomatic of a deeper moral decay.

Consider the commentary by USA Today bloggers on Richards: “His true self came out when he lost control”; “We have seen him clearly for who he really is”; the event unleashed “the troubled beast that dwells inside of him.” Richards echoed this sentiment himself when he told his audience, “All right, you see? It shocks you to see what’s buried beneath,” and later explained, “The way this came through me was like a freight train.”

Not only does Richards’ freight-train imagery distance himself from his comments by figuring them as beyond his control (who can stop an oncoming freight train?), but he also credits his audience for uncovering “what’s buried beneath.” His “All right, you see?” suggests the audience had pushed him over the edge, somehow plumbing the abyss of his soul to uncover what lies beyond the horizon of his consciousness.

Because we live in a culture where an errant remark (“macaca”), slips of the tongue (minorities “have all the power”), or full-fledged racist diatribes (delivered via freight train) indicate the deepest personal racism, we consequently become preoccupied with locating racism in people. Perhaps an explanation for this tendency lies in the decline in overt expression of racism over the last half-century, coupled with a neoconservative ethos of colorblindness, which heightens our sensitivity to racism, causing shock whenever racism surfaces openly.

The gotcha gossip value also gives racist remarks purchase in the economy of scandal created by the incident. Not only do public remarks attract attention to the speaker of those remarks, but by isolating such racism in the individual, circumscribing racism’s reach, and by distancing ourselves from racist comments, we can let our own racism, and the racism of our institutions, go unaddressed. Let’s face it. It’s easier to ignore pervasive race problems by chalking racism up to the individual racist. That’s why the Richards event prompted further investigation into his personal character: He was declared anti-Semitic after a similar anti-Jewish episode was revealed, and when he claimed he was Jewish, much energy was expended trying to expose Richards as a goy. Just when you thought Richards’ reputation couldn’t get any worse, he was exposed as both a racist and a liar.

But what difference does outing one racist make? Perhaps we become concerned with individuals like Richards because we despair about making larger changes; individual habits seem easier to remedy than a large-scale overhaul of political systems. Sadly, our relentless focus on personal identity, viewed as detached from the legacy of racial injustice, limits our desire for public engagement with political problems — even as it allows us to believe that changing personal attitudes produce substantive political change (Lauren Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics,” in Left Legalism/Left Critique, 2002).

If we take revelations of racism as indicative of something deeper (e.g., the freight train within), then the logical solution becomes a personal exorcism of this racist daemon. After citing the train in his apology, Richards continued, “I tried to meet them, to talk to them, to get some healing” [emphasis added]. Many seconded Richards’ desire for healing: one Cinema Blend columnist wrote, “Michael Richards is a nut…The guy needs help. That should be the end of it.” Richards’ publicist assured us that the “nut” is undergoing psychiatric counseling “to get to the bottom of his anger.”

Reducing a history of racial suffering — suffering evoked by Richards’ reference to lynching — to a problem of personal feeling to be remedied by psychiatrists is a cultural phenomenon that political theorist Wendy Brown has keenly diagnosed. In Regulating Aversion, (2006) she notes that seeking therapeutic personal healing instead of advocating for large-scale racial justice “reduces political action and justice projects to sensitivity training”.

Apparently, Richards is to be both therapy beneficiary and therapist. When black leaders spoke out against the N-word after the incident, comedian Paul Mooney renounced the word, calling Richards his Dr. Phil and saying, “He’s cured me.” Not only does Mooney’s comment suggest that his need for healing is similar to Richards’, but it also signals something far more troubling — the belief that we are cured once we ban the N-word. Richards himself noted how the N-word is frequently bandied about innocuously in the entertainment world, blaming the incident in part on how “the vernacular is so accessible.” But this move toward blaming his linguistic environment is as dubious as the psychological dodge. It shifts responsibility from himself to black entertainers without acknowledging the diversity among them and fails to account for his expression of racial violence, which derives from sociopolitical issues that remain unexamined.

Simply blaming a word reduces our collective responsibility for persistent racial injustice to our individual, isolated responsibility to police the way we talk. It ignores problems that won’t go away by banning the N-word, problems detailed in U.S. Census Bureau statistics released last month: how the poverty rate for black Americans is three times the rate for white Americans; how racial gaps in home ownership, which creates wealth, have increased in the past 25 years; how the percentage of white adults with college degrees is almost double those of black adults and the gap is widening; how white households have incomes more than 65 percent higher than black Americans.

Instead of addressing those problems, we become invested in personal dramas, which apparently repentant racists apologize for and seek closure. Once we have evidence of the individual’s healing in the form of an apology, we are expected to move on (recall above: “That should be the end of it”). In the words of a Sioux City Journal columnist: “Can’t we accept Richards’ apology and move on? The article title echoes the words of Rodney King, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’” But the need for an apology shapes our view of the problem, suggesting an apology is the end of demands for racial justice rather than the beginning. Apologies do not offer much of a collective vision of political justice. As Brown points out, the stripped-down request for tolerance meant to close out this controversy is a far cry from the strong political vision embodied by Dr. Martin Luther King laid out in his “I have a dream” speech. Alas, the day for comprehensive visions of social justice seems gone.

We all had a chance to condemn Richards’ outburst as awful and racist, in large part because his remarks were seen as isolated, detached from the legacies of past injustice. However, our eagerness to condemn Richards obscures our own investments in power and racial categories. The way in which moral outrage shaped public discussion of the Laugh Factory incident allowed us to bracket out historical and sociopolitical questions regarding racial injustice. Consider the ease with which Richards was able to become a poster boy for black efforts to ban the N-word among black entertainers, or a large number of bloggers such as williamwallace on Huffington Post, who wrote they were “just as sick” when black patrons called Richards “cracker”. The history of injustice recalled by Richards’ hate speech is forgotten.

Before two weeks had passed, many journalists, bloggers, and Mel Gibson had begun to shift sympathies from the victimized black men to Richards. Why? The answer lies, once again, in our focus on personal morality. In the US, merely saying that one’s rights have been infringed is insufficient for staking political claims. Instead, a much more powerful tactic is to cite evidence of one’s suffering and victimization and then parlay that evidence into “moral power” (Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card, 2001). Consider Richards’ victims’ attorney: “Our clients were vulnerable. He went after them. He singled them out and he taunted them, and he did it in a closed room where they were captive.” Vulnerability becomes the measure of suffering and injustice, and rights claims are most effectively couched in these terms.

Donning the mantle of victimhood leads to something Lauren Berlant calls “a politics of true feeling”, where pain is seen as unmediated truth beyond question. Citing one’s feelings — the more ineffable, the better — ends the discussion. Hence, one of Richards’ victims told The Situation Room audience, “To have him do what he did to me…I can’t even explain it.”

But emotional displays of victimhood require one to remain a helpless innocent in order to continue to win sympathy. When commentators brought up the fact that the black men responded to Richards with a comparable amount of rage, or when evidence came to light that they possibly defended themselves (imagine that!), this evidence cast doubt on their victim status. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper, discussing an audience member’s angry retort to Richards, asks, “That’s not the ideal response to a racial taunt, is it?” and blogger Marc Lamont Hill echoes Roeper’s view that “the two men seemed far from intimidated.”

Detached from historical and political circumstances, the account of who really was victimized becomes a contest of who suffered more, and even the initiator can participate. Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick notes that Senator Trent Lott, formerly disgraced for racist comments, was able to win the minority-whip contest “at least in part, by casting himself as the oppressed rather than the oppressor,” commenting that “time affords the speaker [of racial slurs] an opportunity to cast himself as the wounded.” She continues, “Public opinion today turns on which of our leaders make the best case for having been persecuted, which has most effectively used the word ‘I’ve suffered’ as a substitute for ‘I’m sorry.’”

Once doubt is cast on how much Richards’ victims suffered (Roeper even uses scare quotes around “victims”), space is opened in which Richards could be seen as not completely guilty and perhaps a victim himself. Consider Mel Gibson’s defense of Richards: “My heart went out to the guy. Poor fucker, he’s getting it now. They’ll probably torture him for a while and then let him go. I like him.” Richards is now a “torture” victim in need of sympathy. 

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, after citing condemnation of Richards’ remarks as “remarkable progress,” argues that “We have come so far that it is not the vilified group that’s hurt by the insult, but the person making it. Richards fights for his professional life, Gibson licks his wounds, Allen lost the election — and a cliché is stood on its head: In America, injury gets added to insult.” Here, it is Richards who has suffered the injury: The targets of hate speech have simply been insulted and can now return to their happy lives in an America free from prejudice.

If we concede that the practice of what Lauren Berlant calls “making pain count politically” signals a departure from broader ideals of social justice, what next? If a politics that relies on sympathy to stake its claims “so often… represents the imaginable limit of political responsibility in the face of pain’s claims” (Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling,” in Cultural Studies & Political Theory, 2000), what hope for those of us who would pursue a politics of change in the racial order?

First, change begins by realizing just how deeply invested we are in the language of moral sentiment. The drama of Richards’ outburst and the resulting fallout captured our attention in a way that, say, poverty rate statistics showing extreme disparities between white and black Americans did not. It makes sense that personal stories of injury elicit compassion more so than less emotional forms of injustice, but we must get smart about the privileging of sentiment in public discourse, and how changes in feeling comfort us without really challenging the underlying order of things. Only then we can turn a keener eye towards fixing the race problem in the US.