Whenever a celebrity is caught using racial epithets, the story makes front page news. Outrage is the order of the day. Riley Cooper, of my own Philadelphia Eagles, is the latest to be held up for the rest of us to sneer at with contempt. Mel Gibson and Michael Richards come to mind as other examples. I know that I can’t even stand to watch the latter two anymore on the screen, big or little. But I have been wondering this past week about why we are so fascinated with these very public and obviously very racist rants. Here’s my theory.
Despite the passing of more than 150 years since the Civil War, a half century since the Civil Rights Movement, and the historic election of our first African American President, America remains deeply divided by race. That fact is one of the greatest shames of our country and in this country, my country, we are not big fans of national shames. Somehow acknowledging the things that have not gone right in the U.S.A. is seen as unpatriotic, even un-American. I remember when Michelle Obama suggested in 2008 that she had been ashamed of America, all the professional talking heads thought that was the end of her husband’s political career. In my book, there’s plenty about our country to be proud of and yet, there are certainly things about which I am deeply disturbed, even ashamed. Our growing insistence that race does not matter anymore in America – that we somehow have entered a post-racial era — is on that list. While the Supreme Court has not quite gotten there yet, the trend line of their decisions –from the affirmative action cases to the virtual repeal of the Voting Rights Act– is moving in that direction. And beyond those legalities, racism, and by that I mean completely and utterly blatant racism represented by our friends Cooper, Gibson, and Richards, remains a sad reality in this country.
So when one celebrity or another gets caught on tape in his racist expressions, the rest of us are somehow freed up to point fingers and express our collective outrage. The truth is that none of us ought to be surprised and our outrage should not to be confined to these sensational moments. America remains a country very much defined by race and we need to be committed to truly moving past that rather than pretending that we have.