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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Geraldo' Takes On Easy Targets : Television: Talk-show host Geraldo Rivera clobbered the Klan in a recent episode, but it's the subtler forms of racism that need exposing.

July 17, 1991

The self-righteous, accusatory talk-show host had it all wrong, said one of his panelists.

"We don't hate nobody!" snapped the young mother, lovingly cradling her infant son in her arms. Reposing serenely, the child wore a tiny white robe and pointed hood that made him look like a miniature conehead.

You were briefly outraged, but then hysterical with laughter at this farcical scene on KCBS-TV Channel 2.

Yes, direct from hillbilly central casting, fulfilling their assigned roles as stationary fat targets on Monday's "Geraldo," were "Women of the Klan: Women Who Hate." And deadeye Geraldo Rivera didn't miss once, verbally blasting his made-to-order clowns with cream pies.

When they justified their white supremacist ideology by quoting what they said were the Scriptures, he lectured them on Jesus. He toyed with them, cajoling them, then ridiculing them. He insulted them. He laughed at them. He recoiled from them. He showed them he meant business by kissing a black woman in the studio audience. He got tough with them: "Don't make me want to bop you!" For purposes of his panel, he pitted these barely literate white ignoramuses against two intelligent, articulate black women, and the results were predictable.

It was self-serving, and it was safe. It was like coming out against Charles Manson (a Rivera target on previous shows).

And it made you feel good, really good to know that bigots could be so easily put into their places and exposed as pathetic slugs.

Oh, yes, the show had arranged for Ku Klux Klan supporters to be in the audience, and they cheered on cue every time the white supremacist panelists sneered at "niggers"--an epithet they uttered frequently--and other minorities. But the audience's anti-Klan contingent seemed even larger, and they cheered, too, when Geraldo and their side went on the offensive.

In a less acrimonious sequel to a widely publicized earlier "Geraldo" episode that had pitted blacks against neo-Nazis and had erupted in violence, each side taunted the other Monday. Each clapped for its own. The cheers and applause crescendoed when an elderly man in the audience angrily ordered the Klan women and their supporters to get out of the country and "go to one of the islands in the South Pacific somewhere."

Such was the level of the debate. Not that a higher level seemed necessary, for the Klan women, as they shouted or babbled ungrammatically, seemed brain dead and almost harmless.

As Rivera informed the camera that one noisy Klan woman on the panel had complained during a commercial break that her frequently interrupting Klan husband in the audience was "stealing her air time," the man--who had served a jail term for terrorism--had a resigned look on his face, as if thinking, "Women!" At another time, as his wife rattled on and on, his boiling frustration reminded you of a famous TV character: misguided but essentially benign and lovable Archie Bunker, about to explode at Edith and order her to "Stifle it!"

Really now, despite his criminal record, this Klan hubbie didn't seem like such a bad guy. And the mother of the infant was real funny, too, bristling when someone in the audience referred to the child's headpiece as a cone. "That ain't a cone," she protested, "that's a hood."

Oh, wow! Wasn't this fun, now, almost like a big party? Didn't Geraldo and his Klan klutzes put on a heckuva show, reassuring you that any group this entertaining surely couldn't be all that dangerous? If this was the face of racism, it was wearing a red bulb nose. If these stiffs were America's enemies, there was no need for a war and we can all relax.

But, of course, we can't, for what this show did--as daytime talk shows do so often with their cute titles, catchy themes and emphasis on conflict and drama--was trivialize the complex.

Following Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey into the rich, fertile talk show turf of daytime TV, Geraldo Rivera has become very good at what he does. His shows are frequently entertaining, sometimes even provocative, and he's learned how to work a crowd while patting himself on the back for being on the side of the angels against the forces of evil.

As hateful and despicable as they are, however, Klan women who match convenient racist stereotypes and make for good TV are a small concern compared with the wider, less easily identifiable forces of evil that permeate and undermine society.

We should worry far less about the enemy we see than about the enemy we can't see--the racist disguised in establishment clothes, or the Los Angeles cops whose ignorance-driven hatred and bigotry would be hidden from white middle-class society except for transcripts of ugly police computer messages publicized by the Christopher Commission.

It's human nature to want easy answers, and "Women of the Klan: Women Who Hate" is just the ticket: Send the creeps to an island. But the South Pacific offers no quick fixes for the deeper race-linked problems reflected in the Christopher Commission report and the violence that tarnished the recent opening of "Boyz N the Hood," a theatrical film about blacks in South-Central Los Angeles.

Put that aside until later. But Klan coneheads watch out, for Geraldo Rivera may have to bop you.

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