What does the hype about racist celebrities tell us about our society?

October 23, 2007

One of the surest ways for a high-profile celebrity to send his/her reputation and career plummeting is to say something racist in public. When Michael Richards, A.K.A. Kramer, exploded in a bizarre racist tirade, it made delicious fodder for big media for weeks. When MSNBC host Don Imus made some racist comments about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team, he was fired faster than he could say, “But I didn’t really mean it.” And now that Dr. James Watson’s racism is out in the open, his former colleagues and admirers are standing in line to criticize him, and he is being uninvited from prestigious speaking events and may even be retroactively denied the Nobel Peace Prize.


How refreshing that, in modern U.S. society, no one is spared a public lashing for saying something racist, no matter how famous they are. Isn’t it great that people care so much about ending racism that racist language can turn once loved celebrities into public punching bags?


Actually, I find this trend extremely confusing. Last time I checked, we still lived in a society rampant with racism; it is deeply embedded in our society—manifested in social institutions, public discourse, and cultural norms. And people are silent about it; in mainstream U.S. society, structural racism is invisible. So why is it that the second a celebrity says something racist, people jump all over him/her? Why can we see one form of racism but not the other?


Think that racism is not alive and well in this society? Just look at the prison system. We live in a society that systematically incarcerates people of color at far greater rates than their white counterparts, mostly for nonviolent, drug-related crimes. African Americans and Latinos together represented 63% of all of those incarcerated in 2002 and over 12% of all black men between ages 25 and 29 are incarcerated. African American men are jailed for drugs at far greater rates than white people, even though there is no evidence that African Americans use drugs more than whites.


Also, take hurricane Katrina. The U.S. government stood by and watched as thousands of black people were killed and displaced. Not only were rescue efforts criminally insufficient, but black people were labeled as the criminals – rumors flew about rapes in the superdome, and black people were identified as lawless looters and were even shot at when they tried to cross a bridge into more “civilized” white territory. Now, over two years after the flooding, the U.S. government is refusing to deliver adequate aid to victims of the storm, and the New Orleans local government is tearing down local affordable housing.


The list goes on and on. Gentrification, war on Iraq, the Jena trials—these are all made possible by deep racism. In light of this, it seems that we have far more to talk about than a handful of racist celebrities. Yet, tabloid-worthy criticism of individuals seems to dominate the mainstream discussion. Criticism of racist celebrities gets far more play than discussion of racist institutions and cultural trends. And while people stand in line to criticize a racist celebrity, the people who head the institutions that are responsible for systematically locking up black people, or letting thousands of black people die, still hold onto their jobs and reputations.


The disconnect between the outright criticism of racist pop icons, and the comparative silence abut the more deeply embedded, structural racism in society, reflects an alarming inability to see past the obvious and deliciously gossipy. When a person says something racist, the message is sparkling clear; there is no need for investigation or analysis. And when that someone is a celebrity, this new information becomes instantly juicy. Big media eats this up, and in so doing, dumbs down public discussion.


But investigation and analysis are just what we need. Real understanding of racism in U.S. society requires attention to nuance and willingness to call major tenets of U.S. society into question. It requires that white people question their own complicity in a racist system and that they listen to the experiences of people that have been targets of racism. When public discussion of racism amounts to little more than finger pointing at racist celebrities, the implication is that the rest of us are not racist; that racism is an individual problem; and that by weaning out the racist ones, we are doing real anti-racist work.


In no way do I condone the racist comments made by these celebrities. I think that it is important to criticize anyone who uses racist language. And I recognize that, for many people, hearing racist language from such famous people can be disturbing, disgusting, and traumatic. What I am arguing is that the discussion should not stop here. When a celebrity says something racist, it should be an occasion to examine racism in society more deeply—to make other, deeply embedded, forms of racism more visible.


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