Michael Richards Apologizes on Letterman

Here’s the video.

The allusion to Hurricane Katrina and comedians in Vegas and NOLA, in case you don’t know, is referencing Comic Relief, which took place last weekend to raise money for victims of the hurricane.

It appears, to me anyway, that he’s genuinely sorry and ashamed of himself, as well he should be. He’s not blaming his actions on substance abuse or the people at whom he unleashed his fury; aside from a half-hearted excuse rooted in the nature of his act, he’s taking responsibility for what he did. So that’s to be commended.

That said, I don’t think he really gets it. Anyone who explodes in that particular manner and has the self-awareness to admit it’s coming from rage he feels against other people, or another nation, or what-the-fuck-ever, is indeed a racist. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a difference between active racism and passive racism—and Richards may not be (or may not have been) an active racist previous to that outburst, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t hold prejudices that were bubbling away underneath the surface. Clearly he did. He admits as much himself in his apology.

And much like many passive racists, he assumes that all people have those subterranean biases. Passive racists tend to conflate a recognition of stereotypes—which we all have, by nature of being raised in a culture that promotes them—with a belief in them. Not everyone who knows what the stereotypes are also subscribes to them on some level, and not getting that is a key feature of passive racism—both holding the biases and assuming everyone else does, too.

That’s what makes his statement about black people’s solidarity so telling. He seems to believe that only people of color could have been offended by what he said. He apologizes to the white people who were witness to his rage, but it doesn’t appear to register that there are those of us who simply don’t share his attitude. He believes it does lurk in “all of us,” and I’ve been around enough white people who tried to nudge me into admitting that somewhere—deep down—I share their prejudices to recognize it when I see it. Nothing pisses off a passive racist like an honest admission that you don’t share their views, because they’ve convinced themselves that simply not overtly discriminating against someone is sufficient to claim, “I’m not a racist.”

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