Monday, May 14, 2007

The “R Word”

By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Assistant Professor of History and Faculty Affiliate, Kirwan Institute

Not long after white comedian Michael Richards, aka Cosmo Kramer of Seinfeld fame, had his infamous “N word” meltdown, African American comedian Chris Rock appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show (February 28, 2007 CBS). A few minutes into the broadcast, the queen of the midday airwaves asked Rock about Richards. After a brief reflective pause, he said, “People come up to me and they go, ‘Do you think he’s a racist?’ He’s screaming ‘N*&&#!’ in the club. What’s he got to do, shoot Medgar Evers to be a racist!” Oprah was in stitches, as were the members of her overwhelmingly white studio audience. I’m pretty sure, however, that the audience members did not know that Evers was a slain civil rights activist from Mississippi – I could be wrong, but I’m not. After everyone quieted, Rock drove home his point by asking, “What does a man have to do to be a racist nowadays?”

The answer, in short, is ‘a whole hell of a lot.’ The reluctance of public personalities, from journalists to politicians, to use the “R Word” - to call someone a racist when he or she espouses racist beliefs either verbally or in written form, or engages in prejudicial or discriminatory behavior - boggles the mind. Recall the recent coverage of shock jock Don Imus. The mainstream media insisted on referring to his disparaging remarks about the African American women on the Rutgers basketball team as merely “racially insensitive.” They raked him over the proverbial coals, but not for being a racist, but because his word choice was obnoxious and inappropriate. Enough already. If it quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, it ain’t a confused chicken, it’s a damn duck!

People hesitate to use the “R word” because popular notions of racism revolve around historical misunderstandings. In contemporary society, people assume that there has only been one type of racist – the Byron de la Beckwith type (he’s the white Mississippian who assassinated Medgar Evers). Thus, if you aren’t a murdering Klansman, then you aren’t a racist. But America has produced all kinds of racists through the years, including the Thomas Jefferson racist, who believes all men are created equal, except black men; the Abraham Lincoln racist, who opposes the extreme exploitation of African American workers, but believes in white supremacy; and the Don’t-move-into-my-neighborhood racist together with his liberal cousin the Don’t-too-many-of-you-move-into-my-neighborhood racist. There is also the Rush Limbaugh racist, who revels in disparaging black people in the name of politics, and the Dick Cheney racist, who revels in ignoring black people in the name of politics. In addition, there is the Ward Connerly racist, who does everything humanly possible to get in the way of his fellow African Americans.

Identifying racists will not fundamentally change racial inequality in today’s society. To achieve this end, structural racism has to be eliminated. But in order to have open and honest dialogue about race and racism, we cannot be afraid to drop the “R word” when it applies.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Hasan. This sparked off a lot of thoughts.

    Another feature of this silence around "the R word" today is that all you need to do to not be called a racist is to say that you're not a racist. Anyone who then calls you a racist is "playing the race card" and is therefore delegitimated.

    In some spaces--sports radio comes to mind--there is apparently no other way to talk about race except opportunistically, unless you Imus yourself and there's nowhere to hide.

    To take a more vicious example: the vigilantes of the anti-Mexican Minutmen Project always say they are not racists when in fact their members provide the best examples of racism and domestic terrorism in the US today (

    Another one of the consequences of the refusal to say "the R word" has been the mistaken notion that racists seeking to parade around town should not be confronted directly. When activists confront Nazis marching through a Black working-class neighborhood, as they did in Toledo a few years ago, they are slammed by (Black) politicians and the media.

    As Columbus anti-racists like myself were told by Black, Asian, and Latino politicians and community leaders last summer, it would not be proper to confront the KKK and the Minutmen when they came to town.

    Apparently, a forum celebrating diversity somewhere in a building two miles away on a different day would suffice.