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Growing up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s I was always aware of Johnny Carson and “The Tonight Show.” Like maybe a lot of kids, my first views of the late-night show were usually when I was sick and so my parents would let me sleep on the sofa in the den and so I’d still be awake when Johnny came on at 11:30. Years ago my wife and I got a boxed set of VHS tapes with Johnny’s selected favorite moments across his thirty years as host, and my kids would roar with laughter on especially the hilarious things that happened when Jim Fowler and Joan Embery brought on animals that invariably did very funny things with Johnny as straight man. (My wife and I even attended a taping of the show in 1991 on a night when Johnny, Ed, and Doc were all in the house.)
I still occasionally watch old clips on YouTube, which means whenever I am on YouTube I get suggested clips of Johnny. Recently there was one such clip featuring Don Rickles, perhaps the world’s best-known insult comic. I never found him to be overly funny just generally but I clicked on this one anyway. It was from around 1985 or 1986. But I turned it off after about three or so minutes.
But it wasn’t just because Rickles wasn’t funny. He was offensive. Within just those first three minutes he made two brazenly racist comments. He “joked” first about the people who were in his green room backstage before the show, mentioning that among the people present was some black guy “who was there to rob me.” Then he mentioned that there was a Mexican manning the parking lot gate at NBC when Rickles arrived before the show and he lampooned how dimwitted the Mexican was. “I am sure these are lovely people but this guy was no scientist.”
Johnny and Ed laughed. The studio audience laughed. And I suspect that at the time—all of thirty-seven or so years ago mind you—none of this backed up on Rickles or “The Tonight Show” and it dimmed no one’s reputation.
We can be grateful I suppose that this would not happen today and if it did, it could be career-ending for the people involved. If Jimmy Fallon on today’s version of “The Tonight Show” laughed at a guest who said such things—much less if Fallon himself said it—the repercussions could be swift. Not long ago the person who had been designated as Alex Trebek’s heir to host “Jeopardy” lost that coveted job before he even started it when some racially insensitive radio interviews from some years before surfaced.
Superficially at least, this counts as progress. But I worry that the same basic instinct that made Don Rickles think it was OK to use racist tropes for blacks and Mexicans is still very much alive, albeit perhaps more underground. And I really worry that one of the places it still lives is in the church. I am aware that racism in the pews has been around for a long time. Probably within a year of that “Tonight Show” with Rickles, I was a seminarian guest preacher at a West Michigan church around 1987. While shaking hands at the door afterwards, a white man approached with a cast on his right hand. So he extended his other hand to me instead and as he walked past me, he pulled me in a bit and said, “It’s kind of like always the left hand for darkies, right?”
Even short of the alarming rise in Christian white nationalism in churches and parachurch movements, one now and again hears comments from pastors that stop you dead in your tracks. In a recent sermon from a nearby church that someone suggested I listen to, the preacher was at one point addressing a justice-related question about equal pay for equal work. He wondered if this is always so “just” after all and then by way of example asked the congregation to think about black people. “What if some black people don’t work as hard as others? I am sure many black people work hard but what if some don’t? Do they deserve equal pay?” (“equal” I suppose vis-à-vis all the ostensibly hard-working white folks like everyone in the congregation who heard this sermon and who mostly did not bat an eye at it).
Sometimes I worry that the consequences for invoking racist tropes if not for uttering clearly bigoted ideas come more certainly and swiftly in “secular” society than in the church. Christians and even pastors get away with saying racist things that would get one bounced from the governing board for NPR or banished permanently as a guest on Stephen Colbert’s show.
Recently I had the privilege to hear a January Series lecture by, and then at a separate event the chance to interview, New Testament scholar Esau McCaulley (you can see the lecture and the interivew on the Calvin Seminary Vimeo page). At one point he mentioned that many of the young students at Wheaton College where he teaches express so much disappointment in the church. McCaulley said that in part his reaction to this as a black man is to say “Welcome to the party.”
As we approach the Lenten Season again very soon in the middle of Black History Month, I know I have my own racist thoughts and tendencies for which to repent with true lament and sorrow. Maybe we all do. But for certain the larger church still has so far to go in affirming the worth of every person who bears the image of God. And as it happens, that simply is every person.