MICHELE NORRIS, host:
If you have been anywhere near the Internet or a television in the last 24 hours, this next story won't be news to you, and a warning it includes racially offense language. Last Friday evening, comedian Michael Richards, who played Kramer on "Seinfeld," was performing in a club. He was heckled, presumably by some black people, in his audience and in response, Richard erupted in a vicious racial tirade.
(Soundbite of yelling)
NORRIS: This barely audible recording has been making the rounds on the Internet and on cable television since yesterday morning. It includes references to lynching and a liberal use of a racial epithet.
Mr. MICHAEL RICHARDS (Comedian): He's a nigger! He's a nigger!
Unidentified Woman: Oh, my God.
Mr. RICHARDS: He's a nigger!
NORRIS: And then last night, Richards went on CBS's Late Night with David Letterman to say he's not a racist. He said he lost his temper and he apologized.
Mr. RICHARDS: You knowI'm really busted up over this and I'm very, very sorry to those people in the audience, the blacks, the Hispanics, whites, everyone that was there that took the brunt of that anger and hate and rage.
NORRIS: Commentator John McWhorter is not surprised by Richard's apology and he found it completely unsatisfying.
JOHN MCWHORTER: 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. Take Mel Gibson. He stumbles drunk out of his car and spews anti-Semitic invective that sounds like something out of "Borat." Then he apologizes, as if being drunk means that he wasn't expressing his actual feelings. Everybody seemed to understand the hopelessness of the insincerity in 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, 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? Presumably not. Or is the idea that apologies are about healing? But how could anything Richards said heal anyone?
What we really want is for Richards's troglodytic views and behavior to be censured publicly and that has happened. The part where we require him to apologize is really an empty ritual. There's also something weak about the idea that Richards owes black people this apology. What does he have to do with our well being? Really, think about it. Richards is a modestly talented one hit wonder. Don't we lower ourselves in deigning to beseech him for well, anything?
I think Americans can assume that every now and then some bozo will say something tawdry about black people, Jewish people, gay people and so on. We will let them know that they are behind the times. But why go through the meaningless ritual of seeking insincere apologies that don't serve any purpose? I love Seinfeld. I know a lot of black Americans who love that show are going to feel differently about it now. Some have said they'll never watch it again.
But I for one am looking forward to getting my pre-ordered DVD set of season seven in the mail. There are all kinds of things I care about as I go through this life. Whether Michael Richards is sorry about something he said about black people one night in Los Angeles is not one of them. And I don't think I'm alone.
NORRIS: Commentator John McWhorter is a linguist and the author of Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America.