Tuesday, November 21, 2006

OJ, Kramer and Captain Jack Sparrow

Just to get everybody in a festive, thankful, holiday mood, I thought I'd touch on a few recent news items concerning race relations in America.

Exhibit A is the decision by News Corporation to cancel the OJ Simpson interview on FOX and the publication of OJ's book by Judith Regan, whose publishing imprint is a subsidiary of Harper Collins, a News Corp division. I wish I could applaud News Corp's moral fiber in making this call, but the move seems to have come more from business than ethical considerations. NPR's David Folkenflik reported this morning that FOX pulled out because of uncertainty that Tribune Co. and Sinclair Broadcasting, two of the largest FOX affiliate owners, would carry the controversial interview. Regan is no stranger to controversy, having brought us Howard Stern's stirring, lyrical epic, "Private Parts," but without the frenzied hype and the powerful crosspromotion from FOX, the OJ book sales were going nowhere. I don't think this is the last we will hear of this story.

Now, this wasn't a story about race per se, but anything involving OJ has to bring up the racial aspects of his murder trial. My own memory of the trial is always tinged with some humor when I recall a friend of mine heckling a minor league baseball player, daring him to steal second base. "You'll never make it pal!" he yelled, "You're slower than the OJ trial."

And, speaking of hecklers, we come to Exhibit B: Michael Richards' ugly, racist rant in response to a heckler during his standup routine the other night. I'm not going to post the link, but you can find video of his tirade and clips of his and Jerry Seinfeld's ensuing appearance on "Letterman" at TMZ.com. Warning: the clip is offensive. Frankly, I'm surprised a riot didn't break out at the comedy club where he performed.

I am as big a fan of "Seinfeld" as you are going to find, and the Kramer character is a huge part of that, but my view of Richards is greatly diminished now. In numerous episodes, "Seinfeld" managed to both acknowledge and confront racial stereotypes humorously without lecturing or resorting to treacly refrains of "Kumbaya," but Richards' outburst shows that he needs a script writer, an editor and a director. Hello, Judith Regan?

Exhibit C is a local story that has carried over from Halloween. It seems that a fraternity member at Johns Hopkins University posted a racially insensitive Halloween party invitation that drew the ire of several groups on campus and in the area. The invitation, plus the "Halloween in the Hood" theme, and a dreadlocked pirate skeleton hanging from a noose - a "Pirates of the Caribbean" reference understandably interpreted as a lynching image - resulted in the author of the invitation being expelled from the frat and the frat being placed on probation. Any more keg parties this year and it will be double secret probation I guess.

So what do these stories have to do with each other? What lessons can we learn? I don't know; I was just struck by the common theme, something that is present in so many stories in American society, either on or below the surface. We all make mistakes, we all have our own context in which we act and form our perceptions. I was raised to try to think and act in a way that is not influenced by race, but I don't think that's possible. My family has been in the U.S. for more than 100 years, and I grew up in a pretty solid, lily-white, middle class neighborhood. But my parents occasionally housed missionaries from African countries, and the nearby business district emerged from the economic recession of the 1970s thanks in large part to an influx of labor and capital from Vietnamese refugees. I attended a racially diverse high school and have worked in jobs where I was around people of all different spots and stripes. And still I can't escape my own preconceived notions. I guess the key is to remain open to new and different perspectives and experiences. Okay, everybody hold hands, I feel a little "Kumbaya" coming on.

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