It usually makes me uncomfortable when people suffer bad consequences for actions or statements, no matter how repugnant, that they have every right to assume are private.
So perhaps you share a few qualms with me over the fate of Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, who recently was banned for life from the NBA for making racist remarks during a phone conversation with his girlfriend.
But if we have any qualms, let’s get over them, and quickly. Free speech is a justly esteemed hallmark of what it means to be an American. But the Constitution doesn’t guarantee any of us the right to own a basketball team.
Commentators have thoroughly rebuked Sterling. And the same for Cliven Bundy, the renegade rancher who was, briefly, a right-wing, anti-government hero until his clueless racism expressed itself in suggestions that maybe, after all, blacks were better off as slaves.
In their ignorance and backwardness, old-timers like Sterling and Bundy deserve whatever condemnation we bother to heap on them, but in some respects their remarks represent racism’s lowest-hanging fruit.
Columnists with the credentials to know what they’re talking about – Eugene Robinson, Leonard Pitts, Colbert King, among others – have noted that racism’s real power doesn’t express itself in the mutterings of old men.
No, these writers are more concerned about racism’s less blatant manifestations, like racial profiling and the disproportionate incarceration of blacks for crimes that blacks commit no more often than whites. For example, Robinson reports that blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for illegal drug use, a crime that blacks commit at about the same rate as whites.
Further, Robinson refers to a report from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, which documents a tripling of the “wealth gap” between African-American and white families between 1984 and 2009.
In our culture, distinctions that have a racial component are many, from home ownership to health to educational outcomes to executions to levels of representation in the offices of real power and influence. Some of the discrimination is intentional, some subconscious. In fact, more than one study has demonstrated that identical applications for employment and other benefits are regularly rejected or accepted based solely on the presumed race of the applicant.
Some of this is the legacy of slavery. Some of it comes from a post-slavery century of Jim Crow, during which blacks were systematically – and often legally – excluded from full participation in mainstream American life.
But my concern is that, despite our best aspirations, there’s no such thing as a truly post-racial world. Our sense of “the other” is primal or tribal. Our instincts urge us to defend and promote people that resemble us. And the human inclination to discriminate and reject people that are different is evident in our history and throughout the current world.
From Donald Sterling to voter I.D. laws intended to disenfranchise minorities to the vilest expressions of racial hatred that result from the shallowest trolling of the Internet, differentiation by race is still a powerful force in our country.
Except when we pretend that it isn’t. The Supreme Court’s recent decision that permits Michigan to outlaw college admissions based on the consideration of race undercuts affirmative action, our country’s conscious effort to compensate for our failure to eliminate racial discrimination. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the court depends on the unproven notion that our culture has gotten beyond racism and reached the happy land of universal tolerance and goodwill.
The remarkable distance our country has come since the mid-’60s is worth celebrating. But the blithe assumption that racism is dead because we have a black president harbors an inherent contradiction and paradox. We protest too much. Racism won’t really be dead until we get past noticing and pointing out the fact that the president, or anyone else, is any particular color, at all. We’re not there yet.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected]