Monday, November 27, 2006

The Richards Effect

Black leaders including Jesse Jackson and Maxine Waters are seizing the opportunity posed by the Michael Richards scandal to try and press for a general ban on using the n-word in comedy routines. I presume that the ban would not be a legal prohibition but rather a general agreement amongst comedians. For example, the club that hosted Richards announced a policy of fining any acts which used the term on a per use basis, taking it out of their paycheck (apparently to some people with a weak concept of contracts this is extortion).

I won't say I'm not for this press (and I think this might be the only time this sort of momentum might be available), but I think that this issue remains more complex than people give it credit for. For example, I think the view that Black versus White uses of the word are equally harmful is simplistic and naive. Certainly, the spectacular work Jody Armour has done elucidating the distinction in the African-American psyche between Black people and "niggas" is not the equivalent of a Klan rally, and it's deeply wrong to treat it as such. However, I'm not convinced that Black usage is sufficiently divorced from the negative impacts to make it worth preserving (although I think there is a general carve-out for academic work in these sorts of things anyway). Paul Mooney, a prominent Black comedian and a former user of the word in his routines, has sworn off it in response to Richards. So even though Black persons who try and reclaim the term are not the moral equals of a Richards or a Klansman (and it's foolish to treat them as such), but their efforts may be doing more harm than they intend.

Even still, it is clearly obvious that Richards case--an over the top tirade designed to show some Black patrons "what happens when you interrupt a white man"--is more hurtful, more dangerous, and more worthy of a response than reclamations--however misguided--within the Black community. After all, while such an explicit portrayal may not hit the public eye very often anymore, the underlying sentiments have more potency than we'd like to admit (witness this classically racist rant that argues why "maybe [Richards] was more accurate than everyone thought"). And I think that the comedy club's private decision to make that rule is far, far better than anything else that could be done--the idea that racism will no longer be tolerated socially will get us further than any number of abstract legal or moral maxims preaching color-blindness.

This is a bit murky, and I apologize for it. I guess the upshot is that a) obviously, I hope that this makes inroads against similar racist tirades by White persons in and out of public; b) I hope this also reduces the usage of the n-word in Black communities as well; but c) anyone who thinks that the latter is a higher priority than the former does not understand the mechanics or the harms of racism in modern society.

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