“Jew me down”: Was that really said on the House floor?
Yes. And if you haven’t seen it by now, as a public service, you can find the video here courtesy of boingboing. State Representative (OK-Republican) Dennis Johnson probably never thought his speech to a seemingly lightly populated House of Representatives floor would make such a splash. But racial slurs in our ‘caught-on-tape’ society are likely to go viral when the speaker is a public figure. Representative Johnson made what appeared to many to be an insincere apology, or bizarre, or worse (“I apologize to the Jews. They’re good small businessmen as well”) on the floor when the slur was brought to his attention and then later apologized more formally.
“It just came out of one of the wrinkles of my brain and it was not something that was intentional. I certainly didn’t mean to offend anyone and I apologize for the folks I did offend. It is a comment that should never be made. I will never do it again.”
Of course, Representative Johnson is not alone. Just a couple of months ago, US Representative Don Young (AK-Republican) apologized for using the term “wetbacks” while referring to migrant workers. He “meant no disrespect” he said later.
It often happens in unguarded moments when people are speaking extemporaneously rather than from prepared (and vetted) remarks. We hear about it a lot. Mel Gibson. Michael Richards, known to many of us as Kramer on Seinfeld. John Mayer. Our celebrity list would not be complete without Charlie Sheen. Reading through all the hateful and toxic things people say when they are not paying attention or are intoxicated is very disturbing. But the reality is that most of us simply react to this as though it is what they really think. Deep down. Unguarded. And we do not forget it. And we do not trust them to treat anyone with respect and sincerity.
So what if your client has made a horribly racist statement that is captured on tape and perhaps even gone viral and been preserved by a service like boingboing.net? You can’t unring that bell. But you can mitigate. Or at least you can try if your client is not a repeat offender and is sincere about wanting to make things right.
Apologize: And do it sincerely. We’ve written about apology here a number of times. There are ways to do it right and lots of examples of how to make a mess of it. Recently, Reese Witherspoon drank too much and threatened a police officer pulling over her husband for a DUI. She came across as an entitled, narcissistic brat (although not racist). It just isn’t her image. And she has apologized profusely and sincerely.
“But I do want to say, I clearly had one drink too many and I am deeply embarrassed about the things I said,” the actress said in a statement. “It was definitely a scary situation and I was frightened for my husband, but that is no excuse. I was disrespectful to the officer who was just doing his job. I have nothing but respect for the police and I’m very sorry for my behavior.”
While Ms. Witherspoon probably had more than one drink too many–this apology is a good one. She acknowledges her behavior, takes responsibility, and apologizes for what she did and said. And then she withdrew from the public eye and cancelled appearances for a while to give herself time (and the rest of us time) to step back a bit from what was a very unattractive glimpse of a woman typically presented as a nice person. Her visit to celebrity purgatory will be brief.
Blame alcohol or drugs: When your client is more of a Mel Gibson or Charlie Sheen than a Reese Witherspoon–you can try to blame alcohol and/or drugs for the racist spew. An apology from your client would not be credible, but a disease process and a sincere admission to rehab might. Of course, the public is often suspicious of treks to rehab and quick to see that move as one to deflect personal responsibility for one’s actions. In these cases, issuing a statement may be more beneficial than your client making a statement in person. You can control what is in a written statement.
Whether it’s racist phrases by politicians, racist speech assaults, drunken threats, or efforts to intimidate by celebrities–the reality now is that bad behavior is harder and harder to keep quiet. Your task is to get out in front with the right message and the right tone, and contain the harm to your client’s credibility and perhaps to their career.