Michael Richards Controversy Author Michael Shermer talks about his op-ed that appeared in The Los Angeles Times where he explains how unconsciously and privately there is a little bit of Michael Richards inside us all.
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Michael Richards Controversy

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Michael Richards Controversy

Michael Richards Controversy

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It's Monday and time for our weekly Opinion Page feature. This week, our focus is on the Michael Richards racial tirade at a Los Angeles comedy club last week. Since that fateful night when Richards blasted two hecklers with racial obscenities, the comedian has appeared on several national broadcasts to try to repair the damage. Yesterday, on Jesse Jackson's radio program, Richards said he was shattered by the event and that he'd never used such language before. Earlier last week, he appeared on David Letterman to say: I am not a racist.

Professional skeptic Michael Shermer is a bit skeptical about that comment. His op-ed, titled “We're All Racists Unconsciously” appeared last Friday in The Los Angeles Times. There's a link to it at npr.org/talk. He argues in that at some level, we're all racists.

What do you think? Is racism unavoidable? Can one be a racist and not know it? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Michael Shermer joins us now from the studios of member station KPCC in Pasadena, California. He's the publisher of Skeptic Magazine and a monthly columnist for Scientific American. Good to have you on the program today.

Mr. MICHAEL SHERMER (Skeptic Magazine; Scientific American): Oh, thanks.

CONAN: Excuse me, still coughing that thing out of my throat. Pardon me.

Mr. SHERMER: How are you? Oh, that's all right.

CONAN: So when Michael Richards says he is not a racist, is he lying?

Mr. SHERMER: No, actually, we have our public persona and our private persona, and I think that what I call Kramer's conundrum is that, you know, he really believes, like most of us do, that we're color blind. We all think we're color blind in today's society, but what self-report data shows versus, you know, the study of the unconscious, these are often two different things.

That is, there's what we actually believe and then how we deceive ourselves in what we believe. And so I think the research on this shows that we're all still pretty - well, we're racists of sorts. That is, we make certain associations with, say, blacks and whites in America. And we would never say it publicly. You'd have to be insane to speak out like this publicly, but that's the point.

In the case of Michael Richards, he was probably temporarily insane, that is, lost his temper. So alcohol in the case of Mel Gibson or losing his temper in the case of Michael Richards, these are triggers that release what's actually inside. So it's not the alcohol speaking, the alcohol is a disinhibitory mechanism that allows what's in there to come out.

Now - but that's not to say okay, he's a racist. We all have these implicit associations, and so I talk about - in this op-ed piece - the research on this. This is a test called the implicit association test. Anybody can take it. It's, you know, open to the public. You just go to implicit.harvard.edu and you can in 10 minutes test your own implicit associations of black and white and see how you score. It's a very disturbing thing to do, actually.

CONAN: You got some disturbing results yourself?

Mr. SHERMER: Yeah, sure. I mean, I'm a libertarian, and I'm pretty socially liberal, and I would never consider myself a racist, and I would say all the things that most whites say: I've work with blacks, I've had black friends, and so on. And yet I scored pretty strong on associating positive terms with whites and negative terms with blacks.

That is, the way the test works is you, in the first step, you sort black and white faces by European-American or African-American - is the two categories -easy to do. Then you associate positive words and negative words with two different categories, good and bad, and that's easy to do.

Then, in the third part of the test, they lump African-American/good and European-American/bad, and you have to then sort a sequence of black and white faces or good and bad words into those categories. And that takes a little bit longer. You can tell it's slower because it's slightly more cognitively complex.

But then the fourth part of the test is the real part of the test. That is, they flip the categories such that you have European-American/good and African-American/bad. That goes noticeably faster, at least it did for me. In fact, it turns out for three-quarters of all whites and Asians, sorting names and positive words with European American/good and African-American/bad is much faster than African-American/good and European-American/bad.

I mean, I noticed it just taking the test. I could tell I was much faster sorting good words with European-American, and I found it very disturbing.

CONAN: And even going in, I presume knowing in advance that these are the kinds of things they're looking for.

Mr. SHERMER: Yeah of course. In fact, it turns out there's not much - you can't practice and overcome it. You can - you can fake the test. That is, you can purposely go slower when you're sorting good words with European-American/good, for example. But if you're just trying to honestly take the test and do the best you can, three-quarters of whites and Asians have that association, and even half of African-Americans have that association: European-American/good, African-American/bad.

So, although we have, I think, an evolutionary tendency to sort people into within-group, out-group, culture is so powerful, particularly in America, that is has driven even members of minority groups to associate good and bad with these same groupings that everybody else does.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Shermer, the publisher of the Skeptic Magazine and a monthly columnist for Scientific American on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You go on to note that the Harvard test also demonstrates we prefer old to young, thin to fat, straight to gay, and such associations as family females and career males, liberal-arts females and science males. Such associations bubble just below the surface, inhibited by cultural restraints but susceptible to eruption under extreme inebriation or duress.

Mr. SHERMER: Or even privately. I think, you know, if we're honest with ourselves, what do we talk about when we're just amongst our friends. And so, for example, a lot of my white conservative friends, they do complain about affirmative action or blacks have unfair advantages here or there. Now, none of us would ever say this publicly, but a lot of those associations are there in a negative way, and I think when we - I think it's a little bit disingenuous to jump all over people like Michael Richards or Mel Gibson and act like we're shocked, like we can't believe anybody would think that.

Well, we know people think it. What's shocking is anybody would say it, but again, under extreme duress, losing your temper, alcohol, something like that, it does come out. And I think rather than berating these guys, we should take a deeper look at our culture and say why is that? Why are those associations - 50 years after the civil rights movement - why do we still have those associations? It's kind of upsetting in a way, but on another hand, it's a good excuse to look at it again.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Stacy(ph) in Belmont, California. I'm confused, she writes. If the venom spewed by both Michael Richards and Mel Gibson does not necessarily make them racist, what actually does make someone a racist? Is it like being an alcoholic, for example, where no matter how much you drink, you actually have to say the words I'm an alcoholic to make it so? In other words, are only clan members racists and everyone else just careless with language? I've always believed that a person's words and deeds were a reflection of their hearts, whether high on drugs, drunk on alcohol or, as in this case, being heckled by rude men who happened to be black. Am I naive?

Mr. SHERMER: That's a good point. What's not clear from the implicit association test is whether people that hold these, act out on those thoughts. I mean, again, what I'm claiming, what I'm arguing, is that most of us have these implicit associations of black and white, and good and bad. But 99 percent of the time, most of us never express it, and our behaviors don't reflect it, and we all just get along, as Rodney King said.

Most of the time it works just fine. But subtly, it's still there - what this test is tapping into is some new research on consciousness and unconsciousness. That is, most of our conscious processing goes on at a very superficial level. Whereas most of what we're thinking about, and processing of information, goes on at a subconscious level, that you're not even aware of it.

That is, feelings and thought you have about members of the opposite sex or political associations or social attitudes, that we're not really aware of what we're actually thinking, and occasionally it leaks out. And it's that - that's hard to tap into. I mean, ever since Freud, we've been trying to tap into this unconscious. And what this test is - the implicit association test - is it's trying to tap into it.

I should say, parenthetically, it's not without its critics. It's not clear that just because I'm faster at associating European-American with good words means that I think negatively about African-Americans. It may just be that I think more positively about European-Americans, and I think positively about everybody. So it's not clear that the association test - what exactly it's tapping, other than there are these unconscious associations.

CONAN: We'll put a link to that test up on our Web site. It should be there in a couple of hours, and you can try it yourself. In the meantime, it's implicit.harvard.edu/implicit.

So let's see if we can get a last caller in. J.D. with us from Oakland, California. We just have a minute or so, J.D.

J.D. (Caller): Hi. My point was I don't think you can say everybody is prejudiced. I think you can say everybody is - excuse me, racist rather - but everybody is prejudiced. And I think the differentiation for me, personally -being a young, white, Jewish woman living in the heart of Oakland, California -is there are very defined opinions that I have on, say, illegal immigrants coming in from Mexico versus black, versus the Asian culture here.

But being racist, for me personally, is not an issue. I think I definitely have my opinions that could be considered prejudiced, but definitely not racist.

Mr. SHERMER: Yeah, it's a good distinction to make between prejudice and racism, and whether we act on those subtle, unconscious, implicit associations that we have. I mean, as long as you don't act on it, I suppose - socially or economically or politically - it doesn't really matter. But in fact, the concern is that those subtle associations do come out, even when you're not aware of it.

So I think it's good to talk about it. I saw Michael Richards on the Letterman show. He certainly seemed completely shattered. He seemed like he genuinely was sorry he said what he said. I think that's enough for him. I don't think we need to berate him anymore. I don't think he needs to continue apologizing. I think he made his point, and I think it's time to move on to the deeper issues.

CONAN: And it's time to move on, Michael Shermer, I'm afraid. Thank you very much, though. He's the publisher of the Skeptic Magazine, joined us on The Opinion Page. You can read his op-ed online. There's a link at the TALK OF THE NATION page. This is NPR News.

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