"Kramer" is sorry — in both senses of that word. After unleashing a hateful, racial assault on a customer whom he thought was disrupting his act, Michael Richards apologizes. "I'm not a racist," he says. He seeks counseling for his rage. He asks forgiveness — or at least hopes that we'll forget.
But Richards is not alone. His rage reopened an old wound – but there is much glass — much of it cutting and fresh in that wound. He acts in a context, and the context is a coarsening of racial division.
Consider this. Faced with a close Senate race in Tennessee, the Republican National Committee abandoned its self-professed desire to "reach out" and instead ponied up for an ugly ad designed to appeal — cleverly, to the ugliest of racial fears — that African Americans will take White women.
Referring to Harold Ford, making a serious run for the Senate, the ad features an attractive, young, White model, nude from the shoulder up who closes saying, "Harold, call me." Clever, effective and one of the ugliest appeals to racial fears since Willy Horton in the 1988 presidential campaign and Jesse Helms' racist campaigns in North Carolina.
Republican conservatives also launched vitriolic campaigns against immigrants — read Latinos, — across the country. "They" would take your jobs, were living on the dole, would bankrupt Medicaid and were overcrowding our schools. Build a wall, hunt them down, and ship all 10 to 12 million already in the country without papers across the border. The rhetoric was muscular, venomous and purely racial. There was no talk about building a wall along the Canadian border. No talk about holding White employers accountable. Latino immigrants became the equivalent of Reagan's fictional "welfare queen" living the high life off of welfare.
Republicans in the Senate then returned Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott to a leadership post. Lott lost the post when he suggested that the nation would be far better off if the apartheid candidate, Strom Thurmond, had won the presidency in 1948. Lott opposed the 1990 civil rights law opposed the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and defended the tax status of openly discriminatory Bob Jones University.
Consider the media. There were, of course, no African American regulars on the television series "Seinfeld," even though it was situated in New York City. TV is no longer a completely White ghetto. Oprah remains a remarkable phenomenon, but the channels have proliferated with White faces — and increasingly so have the conservative pundits. Tavis Smiley is the sole, notable exception — and he's on the educational channel, PBS.
This has an impact. The use of the hate word – n…. — has become too culturally acceptable. Some of this comes from Black culture and the informal use of the word in teasing mode. In fact, this is hate language, language that demeans and infuriates. It's a punch in the groin disguised as a word.
Our forefathers created the First Amendment to ensure a robust public debate and to prohibit the government from making laws to squelch political speech, even that critical of our leaders. But obscenity has never enjoyed that protection, nor should it. Yelling fire in a crowded theater has no protection. Similarly, hate speech — like that wielded by Richards — has and should be illegal.
Most Americans want to put segregation and racism behind us. In California, minorities are moving into the majority. Affirmative action and civil rights gains have opened doors and smashed through glass ceilings. Yet at the same time, Americans pump billions into a prison industrial complex that is built on a racially discriminatory justice system, where African Americans are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged with a serious crime and more likely to do time.
The administration has essentially gutted enforcement of the civil rights laws. The assault on affirmative action continues.
Jesse Jackson is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH organization and a long-time civil rights activist.