The Secrets of Successful Racism

Why Eric Cartman can tell a joke and Don Imus can't.


If the Easter decorations are still hanging around the Don Imus household, the craggy, cranky shock jock might feel inspired to study Jesus' discourse on judging others: This mulleted cracker-ass cracker has no business mocking anyone's hairstyle.

On Monday, the radio personality received a two-week suspension from NBC and CBS Radio for insulting the nappy-headedness of certain "hos" on the Rutgers basketball team. He appeared on Al Sharpton's radio show to apologize and explained that he was simply "trying to be funny" and "didn't think it was a racial insult," adding that "I can't get anywhere with you people." (A displeased Sharpton, echoing the angry midget's line from Bad Santa, replied, "What do you mean by 'you people'?")

This scandal comes on the heels of Seinfeld star Michael Richards's race-baiting tirade last fall and right-wing author Ann Coulter's use of the word "faggot" at this year's CPAC convention; in both cases the ugliest words in the English language were played for laughs and received contempt instead. (I would congratulate Coulter for landing the role of Skeletor in the inevitable remake of Masters of the Universe, but a Google search for "Ann Coulter, Skeletor" garners 12,800 hits; apparently I have my own problems with wit.)

All three instances of failed shock humor—Richards's, Coulter's and Imus's—led to condemnations and calls for sensitivity from a myriad of politicians and activists; Democratic Senator and Savior Barack Obama chastised Imus for his "divisive, hurtful and offensive" words, further suggesting that no one with "a public platform" should attempt to find humor in race-based stereotypes.

The problem with this viewpoint is that the majority of Americans—of all colors and classes—have laughed at these hideous prejudices at some point; if you try to disassociate yourself from the hordes of hatemongers, your DVD collection better not include anything with Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mel Brooks, Trey Parker or Matt Stone. (If your DVD collection includes the abominable plagiarist Carlos Mencia, however, may God have mercy on your soul.)

From Lenny Bruce to Reno 911! American humor's most fertile ground has always been our racial, ethnic and religious dissimilarities, hypocrisies and insecurities; the P.C. witch hunts of the 1990s provided the fodder for numerous episodes of Seinfeld and South Park, which millions of Americans-most of whom would find real-life discrimination repulsive-enjoyed because they invoked "hurtful" stereotypes and provided a pressure release valve for our collective guilt, anger, confusion and repression. As any successful humorist will tell you, the most common praise comes in the form of "you say the things that everyone thinks but never admits!" Since most people can lose their jobs for tactless one-liners, the responsibility falls on our beloved entertainers.

On the other hand many bigots utilize shock humor as a means of clarifying and reinforcing group solidarity; spend a few minutes with certain cliques* of College Republicans and you'll hear black babies compared to bowel movements and AIDS praised as God's cure for homosexuality. As one GOP devotee at American University told me, "You shouldn't go to jail for dragging gay people from your truck because it's not like they're human anyway." (Ha! Ha! Good one, old sport!) Senator Trent Lott and former Rep. John Cooksey, who defended the racial profiling of anyone who wears a "diaper on his head," have made similarly jaw-dropping gaffes in attempts at jest.

So when does race-based humor qualify as harmless entertainment—albeit risqué and provocative—and when does it qualify as actual racism?

With my friends of other ethnic backgrounds—and okay, I probably need some more of these—the back-and-forth of boorish jokes is simply a way to kill time, share a few laughs and ease subconscious tension: the other night I joked that my Japanese immigrant friend should have applied for a yellow card instead of a green card; he fired back that if my bad Jewish self ever walked into a brick wall with an erection, I'd suffer a broken nose. (Neither of us felt the need to file a petition with the Anti-Defamation League, although I might need to watch my back for the little guy's razor-sharp throwing stars.) The wider American culture's embrace of stereotype-laced humor serves a similar purpose to our banter: making people feel more comfortable with one another so they can get past their prejudices.

This is why Richards, Coulter and Imus landed on their faces even though Americans love to laugh at bigotry: these entertainers poured salt into centuries-old wounds with cheap punch lines-simple, worthless slurs; spiteful, desperate pleas for attention-instead of throwing our collective ridiculousness back into our faces. Their sin had nothing to do with edgy jokes; it was that instead of shedding light on everyone, they only shed light on themselves.

Marty Beckerman
is the author of
Generation S.L.U.T. (MTV Books).

*the original version of this article referred to "the average clique of College Republicans."