the pulse

Richards' look at race all about saving face

The Michael Richards Crisis Management Tour officially shifted into second gear over the weekend, which was hardly surprising because if there is anything we Americans demand more than a palpable sense of shame for a public transgression, it's carefully orchestrated acts of empty contrition so as to quickly spur equally hollow forgiveness.

Here is where things now stand as we await Richards' next series of apologies for the sin of being white and using the N-word repeatedly and with breathtaking rage:

Retain a high-powered PR rep, in this case Howard Rubenstein. (Check)

Share national spotlight with Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman to begin elaborate remorse process and discover root of the "I'm not a racist, I just play one on stage" meltdown. (Check)

Do penance on Sunday with the Rev. Jesse Jackson on radio before the ears of God and the diversity police and arrange to hash things out with Al Sharpton, too. (Check)

Have publicity guru allude in passing to imminent anger/psychiatric counseling. (Check)

Make it clear you would like to meet with the two men in the audience whom you targeted during your comedy club meltdown, the same ones who have since hired blustery barrister Gloria Allred to see if there might be a possible financial damage award in having so successfully heckled. (Check)

What's so predictably outrageous about all of this is how farcically and ineffectively this racial sensitivity rumba is unfolding. After witnessing the sheer bewilderment and mania exhibited by Richards in his Feb. 20 appearance on "Letterman" — during which he bizarrely used the description "Afro-Americans" — my first instinct was to cut the guy some slack for what appeared to be an emotional breakdown. He wasn't a racist but an embittered guy whose demons had seized control.

But that was before Richards embarked on what has become a shamelessly calculated mea culpa campaign, one that daily grows more pointless in its desperate stabs at butt-saving. The thing is, it doesn't really matter if Richards were to go on "Def Comedy Jam" and proclaim himself a "born-again brutha," it hardly would serve to expunge the clear, wrenching evidence of his bigotry.

Comparisons to the racially incendiary comedy of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor simply don't apply here. This was not part of a stand-up act but instead a raw racist rant complete with allusions to lynching. No amount of bitterness or wrath can generate such a culturally targeted assault in the absence of the prejudicial mind-set itself.

So chillingly plain was the fury of Richards' tirade that it remains beyond explanation. It cannot be fixed by baring his soul before a few well-chosen African-American community activists, no matter how high-profile. After a while, it becomes about whether we believe our eyes and ears or what's being channeled through the spin doctor.

This is not to say that Richards is either beyond clemency or attitude adjustment. But as any 12-stepper can tell you, true rehabilitation rarely comes at the end of a gun. He is "shattered" and reaching out for "healing" (his words) only because the makeover maestro is demanding it.

Ergo, we shouldn't confuse image restoration with the notion of genuine enlightenment, which doesn't typically evolve out of grave necessity. And if you find yourself needing Jackson and Sharpton to heal your character, it means your treatment is as painfully traumatic as your illness.