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Unfunny racism: Black comic's anti-Mexican rant

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Black comedian Katt Williams attacked a Latino patron at a performance
  • Mexican heckler was singled out as a straw man for "go back to Mexico" attacks, he writes
  • Navarrette: Latinos in the U.S. are victims of racism and bigotry, and this exemplified it
  • Williams said he was defending the U.S., but his actions defied our finest traditions, he says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. writes a weekly column for CNN.com and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

San Diego (CNN) -- Haven't we seen this episode before?

A stand-up comedian loses his cool and, in a wince-inducing spectacle caught on tape, peppers a heckler of a different color with machine-gun rounds of ugly and racist language. The words are meant to hurt, bully and demean, but mostly intended to put the audience member in his place by treating him as inferior.

This was how it was when Michael Richards, a white comedian, attacked two African-American hecklers at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles in November 2006.

And, more recently, in an example of how complicated race relations in America have become, it is how it was when Katt Williams, an African-American comedian, attacked a Latino patron at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix in August 2011.

What's this? Anti-Latino racism -- in Arizona? Say it isn't so.

Richards got into a shouting match with a pair of hecklers and exploded with: "Fifty years ago, they'd have you hanging upside down with a (expletive) fork up your (expletive)!" Then came the N-word -- repeatedly.

Williams: I'm not anti-Mexican
Comedian takes back apology

Williams started a riff about what he tells his "Mexican friends" and singled out as his foil a Hispanic-looking man in the audience. He asked the man, "Are you Mexican?" He was. Then Williams zeroed in for the kill, scolding the man in an expletive-laden barrage that included "This ain't Mexico" and people can't "live in this country and pledge allegiance to another country" and "If you love Mexico (expletive), get the (expletive) over there."

The crowd cheered.

Then, Williams took cover by referring to the African-American experience, saying: "We were slaves (expletive), you just all work like that as the landscapers." Finally, as the bit was winding down, he made another racist and stereotypical crack about the Mexican guy having a "rusty knife that his tia (aunt) gave him" and a ".22 he got at his quinceanera."

The crowd cheered some more.

The funny part is that, from the video, it doesn't seem that the guy in the audience was a Mexican nationalist. Oh, the heckler fired back ugly racial epithets at Williams. But, from the looks of it, the man didn't claim allegiance to Mexico or say that Phoenix was part of Mexico or any of that nonsense.

Williams made that part up in creating a straw man. Perhaps he assumed this is what all "Mexicans" think.

It isn't. I'm a Mexican -- or, if you prefer, a Mexican-American. I know my geography, and I pledge allegiance to only one country: the United States.

Granted, telling someone to "Go back to Mexico" doesn't have the historical punch of the "N-word." But it's still racist -- and nativist, and xenophobic. You're trying to put people in their place based on their ethnicity. Unless you go around telling the same thing to white people or black people, then it's undeniably racist to single out Latinos for that kind of insult.

And spare me the line about how there is no "Mexican race" or "Latino race" or "illegal immigrant race." That's a dodge. Fifty years ago, Mexican-Americans in Arizona and throughout the Southwest were barred from public swimming pools, forced to sit in the balcony of movie theaters, placed in segregated schools, barred from college fraternities and denied service in restaurants, barber shops and beauty parlors. Today, Latinos in America are made into scapegoats by politicians, victimized by hate crimes, underserved in public schools and subjected to racial profiling.

This was a comedian who, instead of playing to the crowd, decided it was more fun to play to the mob.
--Ruben Navarrette
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If this isn't racism, then the word has no meaning. If white people in America -- especially baby boomers who lived through the civil rights movement in the 1960s -- don't have the moral "bandwidth" to see that racism and other forms of bigotry aren't exclusive to African-Americans, that's not my problem.

I suppose what happened at that theater in Phoenix is a perverse kind of racial progress, evidence that loudmouthed jerks with racist tendencies and superiority complexes come in all colors. But I don't think this is what good humanitarians mean when they tell us to "pay it forward."

Still, this all sounds familiar. As a columnist, I often write about politicians who stoke anti-Mexico and anti-Mexican nativism to whip crowds into frenzies. These politicians -- who are usually Republicans -- hold one piñata party after another, hoisting Latinos up and inviting people to take a whack.

Same here. This was a comedian who, instead of playing to the crowd, decided it was more fun to play to the mob.

Williams later apologized. Well, no, not really. His publicist threw together a "nonapology apology"; you know, where you say you're sorry people took something the wrong way. CNN reported it. And then Williams appeared on the network to walk back the nonapology apology, saying he meant what he said and said what he meant. Then he wrapped himself in the flag and claimed that he was actually defending the United States.

Really? Now that's the offensive part. Williams' hateful rant had nothing to do with the best and proudest traditions of this country.

It was Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer, who called patriotism "the last refuge of a scoundrel." As this episode illustrates, he wasn't just whistlin' Dixie.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.