“The Little Bit of Michael Richards in Us All”

Michael Richards.jpg Mel Gibson.jpg George Allen.jpg

This post’s title is a teaser that I heard on NPR this morning, referencing an upcoming story. While I missed the story itself, I was encouraged by the teaser line. Encouraged, because it suggests that the story was to take an approach similar to that which many other media stories have taken in discussing Michael Richards’ racist outburst. The approach being one which does not single Richards out as an evil racist in contrast to all of us egalitarian, non-racist folks. Rather, the approach sees Richards’ outburst as symptomatic of a much, much larger, ubiquitous undercurrent of racism in our society, one which lurks to some degree in all of us, threatening to bubble to the surface under pressure. For stories on Richards’ outburst that take this approach in whole or in part, see, e.g., Spencer Overton’s excellent piece in blackprof.com; this op-ed in the Washington Post; and this op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.

This approach is an important one because it is grounded, I think, in a deeply important truth. Most of us understand intellectually that it’s wrong to judge people for the color of their skin, the language that they speak, their gender, their sexual orientation, their national origin, and countless other factors that have nothing to do with the “content of [our] character[s],” to paraphrase the great Martin Luther King., Jr. And we know this to be the case not simply because we have been told so, but because logically and from experience with diverse groups we realize that it simply makes no sense, and is deeply, painfully unfair, hurtful and destructive to judge one another by such factors. That said, we continue to live in a society that is fraught with racist, sexist and other stereotypes, stereotypes that pervade our culture and the barely conscious attitudes of even the most well-meaning among us. This is not a surprise: women have had the vote for less than a century, and state sanctioned racial segregation existed well into the 20th century. It takes a long, long, long time for a society and its people to purge itself of the social inequalities, divisions and attitudes bred by such longstanding discrimination. From this perspective, the view that we are all creatures of our society and that we all must harbor some degree of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., is hardly a radical one. And I certainly do not exempt myself from this observation. I can think of many occasions in which I realized in retrospect that I had judged or treated someone differently because of their race or gender.

The first step in getting past this terrible social and cultural legacy is for each of us to recognize and admit, at least to ourselves, the racism, sexism and similar forms of stereotype and group-based hostility that lurk within us. Pointing to people like Richards as uniquely racist and evil not only seems incorrect, but seems to miss the point entirely. Rather, we should take events like the Richards outburst as an opportunity to admit the hatred and stereotyping that continues to exist within our society, and within all of us. Only then can we confront that which we harbor within us, but which most of us understand is very, very wrong. That the Richards incident seems to have sparked just such a national conversation is a sign, I think, that there is much about which to be hopeful as we continue to evolve as a society.

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22 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    Confess, heretic, and be saved!

  2. I completely agree, Heidi. The media’s exaggerated coverage of Gibson and Richards’ racist remarks is just another sensational ploy that acts like a vampire sucking on American society’s wounds. Clearly dialog about race has become so polarized in America that there can be none, and these stories do nothing more than paralyze the environment more.

    Spencer Overton’s piece was excellent and refreshingly poignant- especially when he points out the evidence of sincerity in Richards’ apology through his PC flub in saying “Afro-Americans”. Thanks for the link.

  3. First, let me say this is a great blog. Always entertaining.

    On the other hand, I must say that, if the Richards incident is nothing more than an “opportunity to admit the hatred and stereotyping that continues to exist within our society, and within all of us,” then it is certainly getting more attention than it deserves.

    First, I am not aware of many people that deny the existence of such things in our society. And, it is easy to guess that, for every person who does deny the existence of such, there are 10 who exaggerate their existence, intensity and impact for personal or political purposes.

    Second, it is curious that race consciousness (which is codified in law via “affirmative action”) was left out of the list of lurking items. It is clear that many of the stereotypes that exist in our society are also the by-product of such state sanctioned racial discrimination.

    Third, Richards has little influence, even in his field, and certainly makes no claim (so far as I know) to be an expert in race relations. Nor do his remarks (given his profession, the reported cause and the setting) compare to past remarks made by, say, Jesse Jackson or Robert Byrd, who attempt to have a major impact on the ordering of society.

    I don’t remember much intense, personal, psychological assessment going on after Byrd dropped the N-word on national television several times. Richards does not strike me as a good point to make up for the lost opportunity.

    Or, so I say.


  4. Howard Wasserman says:

    I agree with Heidi that there is a little bit of Richards (and what Richards did) in all of us. But might we think of it in a different way? Take at face value Richards’ explanation: He was angry at two specific hecklers and he insulted them personally, just as people often insult others. The natural tendency is to insult someone on the target’s most obvious features/characteristics–appearance, which includes race, gender, ethnicity, age, obvious disability, attractiveness, weight, what they are wearing, etc. In fact, I imagine comedians deal with hecklers based on many of these all the time.

    But we have collectivized certain insults–race, sex, ethnicity. By insulting one person on that basis, Richards is deemed to have insulted every person who shares that characteristic. I am not sure we would be having this conversation if Richards had targeted the men as, for example, old or fat or bald.

    Perhaps that is because, as Heidi states, legalized racial and gender equality is a relatively new construct, there is historical context at work; race, sex, etc. are different. Or perhaps there would be similar furor if Richards had insulted old or handicapped people. Either way, this incident might say as much about our current social sensibilities and attitudes about personal insults.

  5. Stokie says:

    Heidi, you went from best post on the site (the self-important law professor blog shout-out) to the worst. We don’t all have a “little Michael Richards in us,” even if there is an establishment (I struggle with what to call it – the Psuedo Civil Rights Establishment? The Liberal White Guilt Establishment?) wishes, indeed needs, such to be so. That’s not to say that some of us, inclusing me and you, never make judgments based on physical characteristics and group identity – we do, and its nearly impossible not to – as we judge based on our senses and experience. But the notion that such garden-variety judgments are comparable to the insane racist rantings of an obviously disturbed man constitutes an unearned, unsupported leap. Some of our judgments are relatively innocuous (assuming a member of one group is smarter, faster, or sexier),some may be wrong, and others -at least based on the body of our experience – may even be true, heaven forbid. The point is, that we draw conclusions based on our experience and observations does not mean we desire to subjugate or exploit others, nor does it contribute to this “terrible social and cultural legacy” you identify, which exists, but is not linked logically to the cause you identify. Lying to ourselves by engaging in forced comparisons with celebrity schmucks does not result in evolution, but only sidetracks.

  6. Heidi Kitrosser says:

    Thanks for all of the comments. Just a few points before I run to catch a plane!

    I certainly am not suggesting that we’re all ready to shout racial epithets at the drop of a hat. The point is that extreme, very high-profile incidents like the Richards one are part of a larger spectrum of race problems in this country — not something entirely separate and apart from the “rest of us.” Incidents like Richards, George Allen, Robert Bird’s of several years back (hat tip to Ruckman for that last memory) don’t spring from nowhere, divorced from social context, they are part of this larger fabric.

    As for the notion that we all judge each other for a myriad of factors — true, but we also have the common sense to know that not every judgment is equally fair, reasonable, or detached from social and historical discrimination. I’m not suggesting that my or your moment of bad judgment is precisely equal to employment discrimination or racial segregation. But I do think that it’s part of that larger fabric. Again, we are all creatures of society. If society is racist then on some small level, most of us probably are too.

    Also, there’s naturally the question: who cares? Even if we are all a little racist, am I suggesting that one big national talk-show-ish weepfest/confessional will “cure” us?? Well, it might be fun, but no, of course not. But I do think we need to be honest with ourselves about the extent of racism and all of its manifestations — social, economic, and PERSONAL, before we can fully deal with it in constructive ways.

  7. Heidi Danforth says:

    Only then can we confront that which we harbor within us, but which most of us understand is very, very wrong.

    I think you should speak for yourself instead of stereotyping the rest of us as racists.

  8. Ken Arromdee says:

    The claim that everyone has a lot of racism lurking in them seems to be unfalsifiable. How exactly could you prove yourself innocent of such a charge?

  9. SecondStep says:

    “The first step in getting past this terrible social and cultural legacy is for each of us to recognize and admit, at least to ourselves, the racism, sexism and similar forms of stereotype and group-based hostility that lurk within us.”

    Nice sentiment, but kids have been writing stuff like this in college application essays for years. Shouldn’t law professors do better?

    Recognizing that racism is in everyone merely shifts the conversation from the denial, “I am not a racist,” to the comforting, self-righteous, and self-congratulatory sentiment, “I am a racist, but just a little bit, like everyone else, and unlike Hitler – and the fact that I can recognize this makes me a morally superior person, unlike those in denial.” This isn’t necessarily progress.

    People should move on from such contentless Sunday school preaching to the real difficult question: So everyone is a racist, but what are people willing to give up in their individual lives, in concrete terms, to do something about it?

  10. Heidi Kitrosser says:

    One quick observation: I think it’s noteworthy that the negative comments seem to alternate between messages to the effect that: (1) The observation that society is racist and that we’re all a little bit racist is completely obvious and not constructive to discuss; and those to the effect that: (2) It’s outrageous and unfair to suggest that the points outlined in message #1 are true.

  11. Well, I think you have to understand that there is some generosity in blanket acceptance of the langauge that has been used, without any demand whatsoever for rigor. I can accept your sense of “racist society,” without even asking for definition, if (1) there is at least moderate concession to the suggestion that we are not all flaming racists and (2) it is understood that reference to hypothetical people who completely deny the existence of racism is a straw man.

    I don’t see the original post as outrageous and unfair so much as I see it as routine political rhetoric, heavy on hyperbole, long on question begging, all guided by pre-ordained conclusions which are themselves well worthy of debate. It would have been a much better post bouncing off of Hillary Clinton’s recent remark about convenience store workers, or Jesse Jackson’s insults to Jews, or Dean’s comments about waiters, or Robert Byrd’s lack of tact on national television. Those are people who have real power in society and attempt to manage the nation’s consciousness regarding race relations. Richards, on the other hand, is a big zero.

    So, likewise, I join in the sense of sadness that state sanctioned racial discrimination (“affirmative action”) continues to this day, reinforcing stereotypes, breeding race consciousness and flaming animosity and resentment among the races.

    My prediction is this: the only long-term impact the Richards incident will have that is worthy of note is greater disrespect for the legal profession. I am assuming, of course, that the First Amendment will not be trashed along the way.


  12. AYY says:

    While I enjoy the blog, the post strikes me as a bit strange. Prof K. I think you’ve missed what the commentors are trying to get at.

    First of all, why bring up Michael Richards when right now the person in the news is Michael Irvin? Maybe there’s a good reason. Then again, maybe the reason isn’t so good.

    And why bring up George Allen? Whatever Allen might have said pales in comparison with the “unbiased” reporter who in the pursuit of truth asked him something like “are you now or have you ever been Jewish?”

    I also have to wonder who your post is addressed to. Is it just white males, or do you include feminists? After all don’t they stereotype men as oppressors? So are they supposed to say “no, that’s wrong, men are okay?” And what about members of minority groups? Is your comment addressed to them also?

    And then there’s the point of view expressed in your post. It’s as though you are saying “Now, now, I know you’re doing your best, but please understand that I’m a law professor and talk to other law professors, and listen to NPR, and read the Washington Post and blogs by law profs, so I know what’s going on in your head, and what you need to do about it, better than you do, so you need to listen to me.” Now maybe you don’t really think that. But that’s what it sounds like.

    As to the substance, we’ve had people advocating all this soul searching for more than 40 years now and what have we gotten — a culture that rewards hypersensitivity, victimization, resentment,and identity politics.

    I don’t know what you consider to be racism or sexism (although the Allen example suggests you have a low threshold) but what often gets lumped into those categories is nothing worse than an attempt to make empirical judgments that someone might not agree with, and to apply absolute standards that someone might feel are unfair.

    Maybe some of our judgments are incorrect, and maybe some of the standards shouldn’t be applied, but that’s far different from saying we shouldn’t make any such judgments or attempt to apply any such standards. So if that’s what you have in mind by racism or sexism, then I think you need to explain what’s wrong with that before you suggest that people not do it.

  13. SecondStep says:


    You’re right. Two objections here.

    Objection 1: “the post is obviously true”

    Objection 2: “the post is completely false”

    Correct, both objections are being made. Your quick observation does not help you, though. What these comments tend to show is that the post is EITHER trivially true OR completely false, depending on how one understands the term “racist.” The two objections track two different meanings of the term racism – 1) the weak, descriptive sense that merely says that we are all creatures of our environment or 2) the strong, moralistic sense that implies that we should direct the full condemnatory force of the term “racist” at every one of us.

  14. Stokie says:

    Professor, to follow up on the last two fine posts, the two observations you make about the tenor of the posts are reconciliable on their own terms. Indeed, my original post explained why. That is, the fact that we all (or at least many of us, like you and I) have made snap judgments – e.g. that we may have assumed that the driver who nearly whacked us at the intersection was a poor driver because people from such-and-such group are poorer-than-average drivers, or back when we were waiting tables in college we got nervous when certain people sat in our section, because such people, in our experience, were either notoriously (a) rude, (b) sloppy, or (c) cheap – is true. It is the leap you made – indicating that such judgments contributed to terrible pain and suffering, or were comparable to a loony, racist rant by a washed-up comedian, that was obviously false, or at the very least, unsupported. Assuming someone stinks at driving is not slavery, it is not lynching, it is not Jim Crow. It neither subjugates nor exploits. It is like comparing euthanasia to a genocide.

    But I think AYY and PJ nailed the reason why this post inspired such ire. Obviously you meant well, and perhaps people are reading too much into this. But many members of the “Professor Class” do need to understand that a lot of us harbor bad memories, and grudges, against our law professors and college professors for viewing us as nothing more than vessels for ivory tower political correctness; in the case of law school grads, seven years worth of such drivel. We’re just a little tired of being told we are “all” racist, “all” sexist, and “all” part of a foul legacy that we are not at all, in fact, a part of.

    Best regards.

  15. Heidi Kitrosser says:

    One LAST comment (against my better judgment 🙂 ). I do find this last set of comments, particularly the points made by Stokie & AYY, helpful. As someone who does not often write about the subjects of race and racism (I usually stick to the apparently much safer subject of bashing the President!), I really hadn’t considered all of the baggage that makes people hear such discussions as tiresome, preachy, etc. Especially when it comes from the “Professorial Class,” Stokie. 🙂 Of course that doesn’t mean that we should stop having the conversations, and I know that none of you are suggesting that. But I suppose it does mean that more thought, sensitivity, nuance, precision and consideration of cultural baggage on all sides is important if the debate is to be consructive.

  16. Heidi Danforth says:

    But I suppose it does mean that more thought, sensitivity, nuance, precision and consideration of cultural baggage on all sides is important if the debate is to be consructive.

    You might start by not calling everyone a closet racist.

  17. Law Student '06 says:

    I find it ironic that people will gladly explain away the comments of Michael Richards, yet some of these same people freaked out over Trent Lott’s comments regarding Strom Thurmond (which weren’t even directly racist, as Richards’ comments were). There’s no doubt double standards exist.

  18. at the risk of over-stereotyping, when I read the initial post to this thread I just kind of knew that Prof. Kitrosser was the kind of person to “usually stick to the apparently much safer subject of bashing the President!”

    As many good retorts in this thread as I’ve seen in a long time on this bastion of PC sensibilities.

  19. AYY says:

    Stokie, SecondStep, PSR(just to mention the ones who posted at length), you guys rock.

    Prof K. Bashing the president is “safer”? He got 60 million votes. If you want to bash him, then do it to an audience that’s going to defend him, and see if what they say makes sense.

    If you see bashing him as being “safer” it’s probably only because there are few at the UMinn campus who would risk expressing views that would bring them to the attention of the pc police. For that matter, one has to wonder whether an open discussion of the type you envision about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc would even be possible at UMinn.

    Anyway, you seem to be surprised by the reaction to your post. Your responses lead me to question whether you are really understanding why it engendered the comments that it did.

    Your reaction to the comments reminds me of something that happened, at least as I recall it being reported, about 10 years ago. The UMinn law school thought it would be a good idea to have all students sign a diversity pledge that the law school would then keep on file. The Federalist Society got them to stop, after raising a fuss. But the then Dean said he was completely surprised by the controversy because he never would have thought that anyone could possibly object to signing a diversity pledge.

    (My memory is fallible and I wasn’t actually there, but this is as I recall it was reported. I haven’t been able to find any current reference to it. So if someone says that’s not exactly what happened, then I might have to stand corrected.)’

    What this illustrates is that the problem isn’t that it is us who carry the baggage from prior interactions with the Professorial Class. It is that many profs suffer from Group Think, and don’t challenge the underlying assumptions underlying what they take for granted.

    They listen to NPR, they read the WaPo, they read progressive blogs. So there’s an echo chamber,and their views don’t get challenged. They transmit these views to their students, thinking they aren’t indoctrinating, and that they’re just saying what any decent person knows is right, because that’s what their colleagues think, and they heard it on NPR, etc.

    But how many of them read anything substantial on the other side? And when was the last time you heard someone say anything positive about Rush Limbaugh? (I’m not expecting an answer. After all I’m not trying to get you or your colleagues in trouble with the UMinn PC police. So don’t turn anyone in. Just posing the questions to illustrate a point.)

    But the students often see this Group Think and they remain silent out of fear of retaliation — if not by the professor, then by the institution. On a blog those sanctions aren’t there. So if you actually were as surprised at the reaction as you seem to have been, then you might want to think of it as a learning experience.

  20. Heidi Kitrosser says:

    The reference to “safely bashing the President” was a JOKE. And if you’d like to see a detailed response to a defender of the President please see my response to Stokie in my more recent blog post from today on the NSA program, or my dialogue with Orin Kerr about the program from early November, or my debate with Prof. Paulsen (and Prof. Carpenter) posted at Volokh from July.

    If anything surprises me, it’s that anyone took that joking reference seriously.

    As for my surprise at the anger over my initial post about racism throughout society, please see my earlier comment acknowledging and addressing that.

    Oh, and if you’re wondering what I think about the “PC police,” you might want to check out my pieces on the First Amendment taking a pretty darn libertarian view, including of hate speech restrictions. (You can see my school website for citations — the two articles of which I’m speaking are the 2002 NW. L.Rev. article & the 2005 Fla. L. Rev. article). In fact, I was proud to have my libertarian views on speech criticized as “laughable” by a good friend of mine who’s a Latino Critical Theorist in a book called Greasers & Gringos (I refer to Prof. Steve Bender).

    As I acknowledged in my comment from earlier today, I AGREE that my initial post was insufficiently nuanced and insufficiently sensitive in the way that I addressed my readers. And I believe that I have learned something from that. But many of the responses, including yours, themselves express an unrealistically monolothic view of the “professorial class” and of “liberal” types. Perhaps we can ALL learn by listening more closely to each other, rather than caricaturing and talking past one another.

  21. Heidi Kitrosser says:

    p.s. — Oops, I meant to say my response to Maryland Conservatarian re. my post from today about the NSA, not my response to Stokie. Sorry about that.

  22. Stokie says:

    Thanks for the clarification – I was just about to say, “can there possibly be two “Stokies” on the same Blog?”