The Sterling Affair and White Self-Congratulation
It’s so easy for liberal white Americans to prove their supposed anti-racism. All they have to do is express their horror at the vile racist comments of openly bigoted white men like Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and renegade Nevada tax mooch and cattle rancher Clive Bundy.
Sterling got banned from the National Basketball Association (NBA) two days ago after being caught on videotape telling his partly Black girlfriend it was okay for her to sleep with Black people but that she should not bring Black folks like NBA legend Magic Johnson to Clippers games. Now Sterling can look forward to the distinct possibility of Johnson becoming one of the Clippers’ next owners.
After leading an armed right-wing rebellion against the Federal Bureau of Land Management, Bundy was heard saying that “nigras” were better off under chatter slavery since at least then they had work picking cotton.
Both men have earned condemnation across liberal America with their comments. Great, but I’m not all that impressed.
American racism goes a lot deeper than the personally prejudiced racist sentiments of white people. One of the big flaws behind the ubiquitous notion that the United States has become a color-blind, post-racist society is the failure to distinguish adequately between personal prejudice and the deeper ongoing problem of societal and institutional racism.
White racial prejudice is still very much alive in the U.S., to be sure – and not just among a small handful of curmudgeonly Caucasian crackpots like Sterling and Bundy. I heard a shockingly large number of white male suburbanites call into a Chicago sports talk radio to express basic if qualified support for Sterling two days ago. I was reminded of the ridiculous comment made by a white friend’s father years ago: “what more do the Blacks want? They’ve got the NBA!”
Barack Obama lost the aggregate white vote to hideously unattractive rich white Republicans in both 2008 and 2012. In 2012, barely 40% of whites voted for Obama, including just a third of white men and less than 45% of white women. Much of his success in winning enough whites to prevail has been contingent on his being considered “not all that black” (“black but not like Jesse [Jackson]”) and running a distinctly “post-racial” campaign on the model of a Deval Patrick, Edward Brooke, or Colin Powell.
Still, anti-Black white prejudice has been significantly defeated and discredited in the dominant national media and politics culture for decades now. Again and again in recent years, we’ve seen white public personalities suffer considerable reputational damage for making racist comments, real or perceived. The nation’s public culture is rife with integrated imagery in its advertising, entertainment sector, political life and more. Even the Republican Party makes sure to pack their convention stages with an abundance of Black speakers and nearly every corporate and college brochure is loaded with images of racial “diversity.” No aspirant to public office dares question the nation’s official commitment to racial equality and equal opportunity.
Prominent public media business and political figures play with fire when they are perceived as embracing the explicit racial bigotry and legal segregation of the past. Witness the case of former U.S. Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), held up for public ridicule in 2005 because he indirectly embraced segregation in terms that are mild compared to the racist rhetoric common among southern white politicians in the 1960s and 1970s.
A technically Black U.S. president (no matter how “de-racialized”) would have been completely unthinkable because of the degree of white prejudice forty years ago.
The deeper, covert level of societal racism, however, has not been defeated – not by a long shot. It involves the more impersonal and invisible operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce Black disadvantage with or without prejudiced sentiments on the part of the institutional actors. These processes are so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional sinews of capitalist America that they are taken for granted – barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. This deeper racism includes:
* Widely documented racial bias in real estate and home lending that complement, reflect and empower the general reluctance of whites to live next door to Blacks, all of which combine with disproportionate Black poverty to keep Blacks out of the metropolitan area’s highest-opportunity communities.
* The proliferation of expensive, taxpayer-financed suburban roads and related residential and office and retail developments constructed on behalf of mainly white suburbanites far from the predominantly Black inner city, which subsidizes white flight and takes critical needed economic resources and opportunities yet further from those who are most in need of it.
* The funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth, which tends to favor whiter school districts over Blacker districts, an especially big issue in Illinois, where per-student funding rangers from more than 20K per kid in the affluent northern Chicago suburb Lake Forest to less than 7K per kid in many predominantly Black and poor south Chicago suburbs.
* Excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian “drill” and grill curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly Black public schools.
* The hyper-concentration segregation of Black children into segregated ghetto schools where underequipped teachers have to deal with oversized classes in badly underfunded schools where most of the kids are dealing with multiple steep barriers to learning that come with extreme poverty and its effects.
* Rampant and widely documented “statistical” race discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion and job-training.
* The racially disparate “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of mass Black imprisonment and criminal marking, so ubiquitous than 1 in 3 adult U.S. Black children are saddled with the crippling lifelong stigma of a felony record.
This deeper level of racism is more intractable, as Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders sensed when they came to the more “liberal” urban North in 1966. It is carried out by elites (including some Black Americans) who would never publicly utter racially prejudiced comments and who commonly declare allegiance to Civil Rights ideals.
It’s interesting and instructive in this regard that Donald Sterling’s fall has happened because of some audio capturing his privately held racist beliefs, not because of his long- documented history of racially discriminatory real estate practices. In 2009, Black Agenda Report columnist Margaret Kimberly notes, “the Sterlings were forced to pay $2.7 million due to discriminatory housing practices against Black and Latino tenants in apartment buildings they owned in Los Angeles. It was the largest such judgment paid in a housing case at that time.” (Amazingly enough, “None of this mattered to the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, which honored Sterling with a humanitarian of the year award in 2009 and was prepared to give him a lifetime achievement award before the scandal was revealed” – see M. Kimberly, “The Lessons of Clive Bundy and Donald Sterling,” BAR, April 30, 2014.)
Former NBA star Kevin Johnson told reporters that the NBA’s decision to ban Sterling is “a statement of where we are as a country. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional basketball player worth millions of dollars or a man or woman who works hard for their family,” Johnson elaborated. “There will be zero tolerance for institutional racism no matter how rich or powerful.” There were two problems with this statement. The first difficulty with is that Johnson unintentionally suggested that professional basketball players don’t work hard for their families (many do). Second, and more to the point of this essay, institutional racism, whose worst consequences fall on poor and working class Blacks people of color (it really does matter if you are a wealthy Black star worth a fortune or if you are a property-less member of the Black “underclass”) is not what may cost Sterling his sports franchise (he is suing to prevent the NBA action): private prejudice caught on tape is what did the trick.
But here comes the hard part – the nub of the matter of why I don’t get excited about recurrent feel-good race dramas like the public shaming and punishment of Donald Sterling. This split decision – real (if incomplete) liberal victory over prejudice combined with continuing progressive defeat on societal and institutional racism – is tricky. It’s not about glass half-empty versus glass half-full. For the deeper institutional and societal racism has more than simply survived or outlasted the explicit, public racism and the prejudice of the past. It is ironically and perversely deepened by civil rights victories and the discrediting of open bigotry and private prejudice insofar as these elementary triumphs encourage the illusion of racism’s disappearance and the related notion that the only barriers left to African-American success and equality are internal to the Black community. It just feeds the widespread majority white sentiment that racism no longer poses any serious or substantive obstacles to Black advancement and equality in the U.S. anymore. “Look, see, we don’t put up with that racist stuff anymore! They took his team away just for some stupid comments he made! Christ, we even elected a Black president. Enough about racism already! Move on!” And so it goes as the institutionally racist U.S. Supreme Court validates the white majority’s constitutional right to close the door of higher education yet tighter on minority youth by voting at the state level to ban affirmative action in college and university admissions.
For those who like to think that racism no longer fundamentally mars and mangles the U.S Black experience and America’s pretense of democracy, it is gratifying to see noxious bigots like Donald Sterling humiliated and sometimes even stripped of their playthings (in his case perhaps an NBA franchise) because of racist sentiments. But for those of us who remain concerned with the deeper systemic racism that inflicts special pain on poor and working class Blacks, it gets tiresome to see white America congratulating itself for dropping racial slurs from acceptable public discourse, outlawing lynch-mobs, letting Blacks sit in the front of the bus, and claiming to honor the legacy of Dr. King and other Civil Rights heroes. The most distressing thing about the Sterling fiasco is the way it provides white America yet another opportunity to pat itself on the back for advancing somewhat beyond primitive prejudice while digging the hole of the deeper institutional racism yet deeper.
Paul Street is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). His next volume is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, September 2014, )