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Michael Richards Aftershocks
“Nigger,” Indefensible, Unactionable

Some of your best friends used the word

What could be almost as disturbing as Michael Richards’ N-word racist rant toward two black guys at a comedy club? The response of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the black guys at that club who were slimed by Richards’ spew.

After Richards began his I’m-Not-a-Racist Apology Tour, a group of black leaders, including Jackson and congresswoman Maxine Waters, called for rappers, comedians, actors, movie-makers and other entertainers to stop using the N-word. They plan to state their cause before Hollywood and music industry bigwigs. According to the Associated Press, Jackson said at a news conference: “We want to give our ancestors a present. Dignity over degradation. We must not profit off degradation and self-hate to a music beat.” However, when someone asked Jackson about that pesky thingie known as the First Amendment, Jackson said the N-word is “unprotected.”

Score yourself 200 irony points if you connected the dots between Jackson’s response and the gazillion times in American history when whites demonstrated to blacks that their First Amendment rights were “unprotected.” Score 500 bonus irony points if can cite an African American artist whose work was actively suppressed by racism (such as early 20 th-century filmmaker Oscar Micheaux), or if you can recall the black men who risked their lives exercising their free speech rights in the 1950s and ’60s by marching in protests with signs proclaiming “I am a man.” That said, excuse me while I put on rubber boots to tromp through the sewage-laden underbelly of the First Amendment. As writer Kurt Vonnegut, one of free speech’s most valiant defenders, told me and other journalists at a press conference some years ago, we folks who champion the First Amendment often have to sully ourselves with some contemptible company.

“I have what I call a schmuck list — people who are scum of the earth” whose vile uses of free speech and expression “have put the First Amendment in a terrible danger,” Vonnegut said. “.¤.¤. The case is very easy to make for censorship.” Indeed. Who, except racist fascists, didn’t cringe when watching Richards’ rant, captured by a video cell phone and quickly posted on the Internet? Working at The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville in 1999, I wrote a lengthy article on hip-hop’s use of the N-word, and how the slur had ingratiated itself not only in rap but in comedy, movies and much of pop culture — most often uttered by black performers. In interviews with more than a dozen African Americans, I noticed opinion broke along generational lines: Blacks under age 30 were cool with the modern use of morphed term “nigga,” but older blacks abhorred the N-word in any and all forms and contexts.

And I realized: For the older African Americans, who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, hearing the N-word at any time and place could have been literally a death knell — a sonic signal that their lives were in very grave danger. Speaking several years ago about a white supremacist rock band, Art Teitelbaum, the Southern area director of the Anti-Defamation League, said speech “can stimulate people to violence.” Such music “is organized by hardcore haters with racist and anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideology .¤.¤. The lyrics call for the killing of minorities. To say it’s only words is to suggest that words are always only innocent. Sometimes word bullets become real bullets.” Is that the argument being used by the two African American men targeted by Michael Richards’ N-word scud missiles?

The two men, Frank McBride and Kyle Doss, have hooked up with attorney Gloria Allred. She told the AP that Richards should meet McBride and Doss in front of a retired judge to “acknowledge his behavior and to apologize to them” and (I’m paraphrasing here) soothe this black-white enmity with some green. That is, allow the judge to decide on monetary compensation. “To have him (Richards) do what he did to me .¤.¤. I can’t even explain it,” Doss said in the AP article. “I was humiliated, even scared at one point.”

Score 500 more bonus irony points if you recall Rev. Jackson’s quote above: “We must not profit off degradation .¤.¤.” (A Dec. 2 AP article reported that “Michael Richards will apologize in person to the four (emphasis added) black men he targeted in a tirade of racial slurs during a recent comedy club performance. A retired judge will mediate the meeting and determine whether he should take any other action to resolve the matter, Richards’ spokesman and an attorney for the men said Friday. A cash settlement could be part of the resolution, said Howard J. Rubenstein, who represents Richards.”) Whether the black men score any cash may depend on whether the judge believes that the men themselves believe Cosmo Richards may have gone physically postal (and not just verbally postal) on their ass.

In the book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” by Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, he reports that targets of the epithet who have sued in court have won some cases, while others have lost. In such cases as Wiggs v. Courshon and Nims v. Harrison, the black plaintiffs prevailed. In Wiggs, a 1973 case, black customers at a Miami motel restaurant got into a dispute with a waitress, who said, “You can’t talk to me like that, you black son of a bitch. I will kill you.” A short time later, within the customers’ earshot, she fired off the N-word. In Nims in 2000, a black high school teacher was targeted by several graduating students in a newsletter distributed at the school. Along with such epithets as “fucking gigaboo” and “stupid motherfucking bitch,” the perpetrators also penned “Die nigger.” In such cases, the black plaintiffs were subjected to physical threats — death threats. In other cases lacking such threats, judges ruled that use of the N-word amounted only to an “insult” or “offensive expression.”

In a 1992 interview with Joseph Heller in Playboy, Vonnegut said, “The First Amendment is a tragic amendment because everyone is going to have his or her feelings hurt and your government is not here to protect you from having your feelings hurt.” During that Vonnegut press conference I attended, St. Kurt (yes, Vonnegut is a humanist saint in my book) went on to lament how he often must make common cause with those scummy yahoos — the racists and misogynists and neo-Nazis — in the service of a greater cause. “Nobody’s ever figured out a way to defend the First Amendment without being a First Amendment absolutist,” Vonnegut said. “But .¤.¤. you don’t have to say these people are culture heroes.”

Yes, I empathize with the pleas of Jesse Jackson and Art Teitelbaum, the ADL director who decried, “Word bullets become real bullets.” And I empathize with Richards’ targets — despite that unsavory let’s-cash-in odor. But our society must endure the “word bullets,” however vile and vicious. “Congress shall make no law (emphasis added) .¤.¤. “ is in the First Amendment because James Madison realized if you shutter someone else’s speech, that opens the door to someone shuttering your speech. We have a justice system to deal with those who move from word bullets to real bullets. And we have the court of public opinion, aided by the media, the Internet and the court of YouTube — or, in Richards’ case, the court of the Web site that broke the video, TMZ.com.

Through such channels you, me and all citizens can repel the haters’ word bullets with censureship, not censorship.

Rick de Yampert is a columnist for The Daytona Beach (Florida) News-Journal. He can be reached at rick.deyampert@news-jrnl.com

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