The biggest attention-grabbing racial story of the day has not been a recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. It is not a concern that some states could be making it harder for minorities to vote. It is about an 80-year-old married guy thinking he was talking to his early 30s girlfriend while actually talking to the world.
That’s the way things work in a new America in which there are recording devices in every nook, cranny and pocket. If the speaker happens to a be a billionaire who owns a professional basketball team and what he says is a racist slur, you can bet he is going to end up on a website spreading celebrity gossip. By the time the digital world, TV and radio had spent next to no time on this, Donald Sterling was a household name, his reputation was dirt and his continued ownership of the team questionable.
Good. He had slogged away on his racism for years, and it was time his despicable diligence caught up with him. But while this one-person incident points to how this kind of vile bigotry continues to slither through our society, there’s a bigger question. Is the incident illustrative of a widespread regress despite the historic election of a black president and an array of other positives? I think the positives are winning.
Even the reaction to Sterling is one of those positives. Look at the immediate, loud, unhesitating protest of advertisers, NBA players and owners, media commentators and a slew of others and then tell me we are still a people who abide this sort of thing.
Consider as another convincing positive that the racial habits of some of the old are far from being adopted by many of the young. I was recently at a conference concerning the millennial generation born between 1980 and 2000. A millennial virtue, it was said, is that racial prejudice is out the window.
But wait. What about that Supreme Court ruling that Michigan voters had the right to disallow affirmative action in public institutions? A lawyer on the losing side characterized it as racist, a major step backward.
An answer to him is that affirmative action itself is a system of racial preferences that can give advantages to the privileged over the disadvantaged. At the least it endorses a skin-color test once viciously used against blacks and hardly rendered just when employed in a different direction. Nothing in the ruling, in the meanwhile, would prohibit any university from offering special opportunities to disadvantaged minorities and others in tough circumstances as long as there is no racial discrimination.
It’s supposedly racism again when states act to prevent voter fraud with ID rules that apply equally to everyone and are a snap to comply with. It is true that we do not know the full extent of voter fraud today, in part because too few laws enable close scrutiny, but we do know that something like 1.8 million dead people are registered to vote on top of 2.75 million live people registered in more than one state.
As much is reported by Robert Popper, a former U.S. civil rights official who argues in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that the reasons for caution are legitimate and the reasons to worry about vote-squashing state responses aren’t. He notes minority voting has gone up or stayed roughly the same in states that have passed ID laws.
We have much to despise in our racial history, from the slavery none of us witnessed to the segregation many of us saw up close. Racism is still with us and evinces itself in ways more deeply painful than remarks by Sterling. We must never grow complacent. But I believe we continue to be headed in a better direction.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.