After the story of the Clippers owner Donald Sterling broke on TMZ, I followed along as every media outlet, blogger, and average Joe with a twitter account weighed in on the subject and voiced his or her opinion. But not many people highlighted the real takeaway from this situation. We seem to be missing the bigger point.
The point we should focus on is this: we have the opportunity, as a nation, to engage in a healthy intellectual discussion about the issue of race in a modern society and how to begin the process of eliminating racism in that society. But instead, we are turning our media attention and conversation to angles of privacy invasion, First Amendment rights, and due process of the NBA. All of these things are deeply important issues (except the NBA bit) and deserve serious healthy discussions of their own. But, Donald Sterling and his comments on a broad culture of racism should not be what prompt those subjects. The issue at the core of this is racism. So lets stay on topic.
People often say we live in a “post-racial society.” Some people think that the discussion of race is over just because Jim Crow is illegal and lynching is not the norm. But the reality is, racism is alive. Not just in the hearts of white billionaire octogenarians, but in the structural and societal systems that we live in. It is alive in our political systems and our language. Racism is alive, but we choose to ignore it.
One comment I keep hearing about Sterling is “he comes from an older generation raised on racism. Our generation isn’t racist…” As if racist attitudes will die with our oldest generation. I can guarantee (and I hope to God I am wrong) racism will not die with the Donald Sterlings of the world. Sure, it may be the last generation of white guys who will say the N-word and not see an issue with it, but racism won’t die with them. It will continue to evolve, hide, change its name and disguise itself like it always does.
In a post-racial future no one would say the n-word anymore (I hope) but some coded language like “thug or urban” start to surface to mean the exact same thing. The old racist mindset of one group of people being inherently lazier or more violent than another, will no longer be phrased as an issue of white vs. black but will be put it in the context of class and wealth or inner-city vs. suburban. The words may change, but the sentiment will remain the same. Wait…what?… this is happening right now?!
Clearly, racism is living among us in the so called, post-racial world (presumably hiding in plain sight behind a fake mustache and glasses). So, how do we recognize it…call it out…and beat the hell out of it? I am not going to pretend to have any clue how to end racism in America (that is far beyond my pay grade). But one thing we can do is, at least, recognize that racism is still real and it is a problem. We cannot attempt to change anything if we don’t acknowledge that something needs to be changed in the first place.
As I mentioned, racism has evolved from overt bigotry to a disguised system that legally and effectively separates minorities from white populations on socioeconomic lines; ultimately transforming an issue of race into an issue of economics. Now, rather than racial issues, we talk about poverty and the inner-city, gun crime, drug abuse, sexual assault, gang violence and the abhorrent public education systems within these communities (a problem that disproportionately affects people of color over white people). Changing the conversation from an issue of race to an issue of poverty makes it easier to continue living in this system without feeling the need to change anything. We are a capitalist society. There are winners and losers. But the “losers” are disproportionately people of color. (see more)
50 years ago, the average white guy (Donald Sterling’s age) could have said that minorities are lazier, more violent and prone to drug use than white Americans. Now, no one would dare make those comments (except Sterling). That’s racist! But those opinions still exist just under different names. And racism continues to evolve, hide and change its name.
Now, the argument is the same but a few words have changed. We framed the conversation in the context of economics rather than race (it becomes less personal that way). It is so much easier to say, “poor people continue to be poor because they don’t want to work hard enough for it” than it is to say “black people continue to be poor because they don’t want to work hard enough for it.” Why is it easier to say the former? Because it doesn’t sound racist as hell! But essentially you are saying the same thing.
(Now I know the backlash going on in everyone’s head is “Hey you bald white son-of-a-bitch! Isn’t assuming all black people are poor racist?!” and yes it is. I am not suggesting that all people of color living in the United States live below the poverty line or in the inner city, but evidence would show that there are more people of color than white people in these areas.)
Throughout U.S history, there has been a clear dynamic, one group of people have been in control of all political, economic, and cultural elements of society. Any people outside of that group have been either systematically ostracized or expected to assimilate to those societal norms. I am not claiming some sort of Freemason conspiracy about our societal structure. But when race relations in the United States begin with one group of people owning another, there is bound to be some structural inequality to follow.
Yes, we have made a great progress over the last 50 years toward racial equality, but we are not there yet. So how do we reach to that equality? I will leave that to the experts. But what we need to do right now is, at the very least, acknowledge that racism is alive and well and there is an inherent structural, societal, and economic inequality in the United States. Once we come to terms with that, we can begin to work together to tackle the issue that has plagued our society for centuries.
In the midst of all the chatter surrounding Donald Sterling, Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento eloquently brought the true issue to light. “Yes, we have an African-American president. Yes, justice [for Sterling] happened in a swift manner and forceful, yes, that occurred today. But these events remind all of us that hatred and bigotry are far from over. I hope that every bigot in this country sees what happened to Mr. Sterling and recognizes that if he can fall, so can you.”