Shelby Steele on the decline of racism:
When Richards blasted forth with the "N-word" at a comedy club, his language met with universal condemnation. Today's acts of racism play out within an American society obsessed with purging itself of racism, a society that measures its very legitimacy by its intolerance for racism. When I was growing up in the last decade of segregation, even violent acts of racism were no threat to American legitimacy. When Richards said to his hecklers, "Fifty years ago we would have hung you up by your feet," he was longing for the days of my childhood, when blacks would fear to heckle a white comic — a time when violence enforced a much larger pattern of black subjugation. But Richards' hecklers only laughed at him. The difference between the two eras is the death of white supremacy.
This does not mean that racist behavior today is somehow benign. It means that today racism swims upstream in an atmosphere of ferocious intolerance. Moreover, today's racism is no longer in concert with an overt and systematic subjugation of blacks. While racism continues to exist, it no longer stunts the lives of blacks.