This commentary contains racially offensive language.
You've probably heard that Seinfeld's Kramer, actor and comedian Michael Richards, got heckled by some black audience members when he was doing a standup routine last week, and launched into a tirade laced with the N-word and a reference to lynching.
Well, of course Richards has now apologized. Everybody thought he should, and he did.
What I don't get is what the purpose of these apologies for racism is supposed to be. Why, precisely, are we to consider it so important that people wish they hadn't done something that they did?
Take Mr. Mel Gibson, for instance. He stumbles drunk out of his car and spews anti-Semitic invective that sounds like something out of Borat. Then he apologizes, under the impression that somehow, being drunk meant that he wasn't expressing his actual feelings.
Everybody seemed to understand the hopelessness of that one. But there's no real difference with Michael Richards. He got heckled, he saw that the hecklers were black, and he started calling them niggers.
So what does "I'm sorry" mean in this case? Of course, he now wishes he hadn't done what he did, for purely practical reasons. His reputation is in tatters and, especially now with the Internet preserving everything for everyone to watch at the click of a button, it will stay that way. But we knew that. We didn't need him to say it.
Or, does "I'm sorry" mean that a few days past what he did, his feelings about black people have miraculously changed? Well, I fail to see the point in that either: He'd be lying just as clearly as a certain someone was in saying he was going to devote his life to finding "the real killers."
Wait, there's the idea that apologies are about healing. But it doesn't look like anything Richards would say would heal anyone. How could it?
What we really want is for Richards' troglodytic views and behavior to be censured publicly. And that has happened. If anything, modern technologies like YouTube make the censure even more effective — all we have to do is press a button to watch the transgression. The part where we require Richards to "apologize" is, really, an empty ritual.
It's even a ritual with dangerous implications. I once appeared on a TV talk show with a seasoned black man of a certain age. He was making the argument for reparations for slavery. I will never forget his body language: He was sitting with his palms upturned on the table in front of us. He was adopting a position of supplication. The message was "We are owed something."
I'm not comfortable with the idea that for black people, there is a special dignity in proclaiming that we aren't up to the job. Certainly the government must play a part in finishing the civil rights revolution. But the nakedness of the man's gesture will never leave me — those hands. I can't find black strength in it.
The idea that we must be apologized to with great fanfare whenever someone says something racially ugly reminds me of those hands. It's as if there is something progressive in saying that we're not strong enough to withstand and get past being insulted.
Frankly, I think we are. I also think we lower ourselves in deigning to ask a modestly talented one-hit wonder comedian for an apology, as if anything he said or did has anything to do with a race of millions going about their daily business of making the best of themselves.
We can assume that every now and then, some bozo will say something tawdry about black people, Jews, gay people and so on. We will let them know they are behind the times. But why go through the meaningless ritual of seeking insincere apologies that don't serve any purpose?
I myself am currently running around Newark, N.J., learning about prisoner re-entry programs. How Kramer feels about me, and whether or not he's sorry about it, somehow feels rather unimportant. I don't think I'm alone.