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What Lies Beneath

By Eugene Robinson
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Anyone who thinks that racism in this country is history really ought to watch the video of Kramer going postal.

I'm not saying that everyone is like Michael Richards, the "Seinfeld" alumnus whose hideous meltdown at a Los Angeles comedy club Friday was captured by a digital camera and soon posted on the Internet for all to witness in slack-jawed amazement. I'm not saying that evil lurks in the hearts of all men and women. But I am saying that, as a society, we still haven't purged ourselves of racial prejudices and animosities. We've buried them under layers of sincere enlightenment and insincere political correctness, but they're still down there, eating at our souls.

For those who missed it, Richards -- who will always be known as Cosmo Kramer, Jerry Seinfeld's indescribably weird neighbor -- was performing at the Laugh Factory, a club in Hollywood, when a heckler in the audience began to intervene. There isn't a comic alive, I would wager, who has never been heckled. Surely, a performer of Richards's experience has faced rowdier interlopers than the one Friday night.

Who happened to be black.

Out of nowhere, Richards explodes. He screams at the man, and I mean screams, "Fifty years ago they'd have you upside down with a [expletive] fork up your ass." Audience members don't initially react, perhaps unsure if they've really just heard a nostalgic reference to lynching.

But Richards continues, at the top of his lungs, using the expletive for which the term "N-word" is far too cute. "He's a [expletive]! He's a [expletive]! He's a [expletive]! A [expletive], look, there's a [expletive]!"

In the background, a female member of the audience is heard to say, "Oh my God."

The rant doesn't end there, but that's the gist of it. The whole thing was captured on a pocket-size digital camera that has the ability to record snippets of video, and the recording surfaced on the Web site TMZ.com.

"Usually, when you see the tape you've been waiting to get your hands on, the reality isn't as big as you think," said TMZ.com managing editor Harvey Levin. "This was bigger."

This is the second big scoop by TMZ.com, a year-old partnership between AOL and Telepictures, a division of Warner Bros. The Web site also was the first news outlet to report on Mel Gibson's drunken, anti-Semitic rant. "What I'm hoping is that we're the go-to place for breaking entertainment stories," Levin said, "not that we're the site that specializes in racist celebrities."

Richards went on David Letterman's show Monday night to apologize. Appearing via satellite feed from Los Angeles, Richards gave a rambling mea culpa that provided few answers. He made no excuses for his inexcusable words, but he did tell viewers, "I'm not a racist."

He could have fooled me. Just as Gibson, who in his own ritual abject apology said he's not an anti-Semite, sure had done a pretty good impersonation of one.

Look at the two celebrity blow-ups together, and maybe throw in Sen. George Allen's "macaca" moment, too. One thing they teach us is that there are no unguarded moments anymore. Richards's outburst was filmed by someone with a tiny digital camera, Allen's by a young man with a video camera. Footage of their indiscretions and facsimiles of Gibson's drunken-driving police report were disseminated to the world within hours via the Internet. You can't even run anymore, much less hide.

The other lesson is that in each case, something ugly erupted from somewhere so deep inside that I'm not sure Richards, Gibson or Allen even knew the ugliness was there.

Richards's heckler just happened to be black. As far as we know -- the video clip begins with the comedian losing it -- there was no racial content in the heckling. But something inside Richards was triggered, some hidden fail-safe switch, and he went immediately to race as if that were the reason the man was annoying him and thus an appropriate way to strike back. He didn't see the heckler as a man, he saw him as a black man -- one who needed to be reminded that once upon a time he might have been lynched for his impertinence, and who needed to be put in his place with the most explosive word in the language.

Gibson's rant about Jews was a similar thing. Allen's fumble was less unforgivable, but then again he's a United States senator, not an actor or a comedian.

Out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, come explosions of vitriol, suspicion and disdain, all aimed at minorities. Don't tell me that racism is dead. It just shuns the light of day.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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