Please Ignore the Racist In Front of the Curtain

Sterling and Bundy certainly said some horribly racist stuff. In this article, Bridget Welch argues that while what they said is horribly bad, the attention we pay to these acts is just a farce that allows the real racism to continue unchecked behind the scenes.

I don’t follow the sports. I can honestly say that I would have had no idea what city had a team named the Clippers (I’m not sure if I would have been able to name the sport) prior to the big racist meltdown Donald Sterling, the team’s owner, had when his girlfriend was seen at a game with a black man. I’m not going to get into the meltdown. It’s all over the internet for your listening … pleasure?

I do, however, closely follow grazing rights and am currently kicking butt in my fantasy public land use league with Cliven Bundy as an early pick. If that sentence made no sense to you it is because it’s one part dry humor and another part about illegal grazing of cattle which most Americans spend about 0% of their life thinking about. However, Cliven Bundy probably rings a bell because of his recent racist spiel that was cycled fairly often on all of the news channels.

Both men made comments that show attitude towards Blacks that can be traced directly back to our justifications for slavery. Sterling talks about how he takes care of his black players, evidently “giving” them cars and putting meals on their tables — I guess what he means is that he does this when they otherwise would not be able to support themselves. Bundy gets right to the point with his claims that Blacks would be better off back in the fields picking cotton because at least then they wouldn’t be asking for handouts. Both men are recycling the same tired tropes of the “happy” slave who relied upon the Master to provide for them and were content with their lot in life as long as they had a little rest and watermelon.

Please do not misunderstand as this post goes forward. What both of these men said was foul, highly problematic, and shows how much the historical creation and content of stereotypes still lingers. And I was happy to see all of the civil action in response. The problem is, the focus on these men is skewed towards paying attention to some stupid stuff someone said rather than the larger issues that actually perpetuate racism in American society.

“Why do racist words bring more accountability than racist practices?” asks Jay Smooth.

I know it must seem like every blog post you read from me comes with a mini-history lesson. But the reason why is that our current practices are all bundled up with how things were before. This is so strikingly the case with racism that we really cannot understand anything about our current practices, much less answer Smooth’s question, without knowing where these practices came from. In terms of today’s topic, we came from postcards with little black girls giving goofy grins and speaking in an uneducated manner. We came from minstrelsy, where a popular form of entertainment was white people in black face making blacks out to be stupid, uneducated, and just simple (it didn’t end there … think Daisy in Gone with the Wind). But fast forward to more recent history, we came from sundown towns, burning crosses, rapes, lynchings, bombs, other murders …

And we all are (as we should be) very grateful that America today does not look like that past history. We’ve left that form of racism (racism 1.0) in the dust. So when people like Sterling and Bundy make out-and-out racist comments they are shocking, attention grabbing — because that doesn’t happen anymore. At least not in the open, where people can see it. What we have now is racism 2.0 (or the new racism), a racism that celebrates individual people of color (e.g. Barack Obama) through a practice of tokenism (letting a few people to the top so we can point to them and say, “See! It’s possible! Nothing about America is holding you back!”) while maintaining racial differences with in our social structures and institutions that truly makes it difficult (to neigh on impossible) for more than those few tokens to advance. The idea here is that if we just ignore racism, it’ll go away. I don’t know how in one post to show you that is in no way the case (so start by reading links just from this blog and you might get closer).

The fact of the matter is that there are still huge disparities between blacks and whites (and other people of color) in terms of wealth, income, education, housing, and life expectancy. Despite this truth, we still claim that we are “colorblind” — that we don’t see race… WE aren’t racist. What we end up with is an amazing phenomenon where racism is alive and well with no racists causing, creating, or maintaining it.

Thus the Sterlings and Bundys become vastly important, I argue, in maintaining our current new racism.

While Americans:

  • vote away policies that attempt to create racial equality in our system
  • arrest and incarcerate black men disproportionately for crimes
  • allow implementation of voting laws that keep people of color out away from the polls
  • attack health care proposals that could actually help even out life chances between blacks and whites

We deny any racial basis for these decisions. And, we now have “plausible deniability” because “Hey! I didn’t say I don’t want black people to vote… or to go to prison … or return to the fields where they’ll be happier.” No, that’s just people like Sterling and Bundy!

And it allows larger structures, such as the NBA, to ignore and leave unexamined their own racist policies. In kicking out Sterling, they are able to say, “Look! We don’t approve of this guy. It shows that we aren’t racist at all.” Please ignore the fact that in a sport where only 19% of the players are White, 53% of coaches and 98%  of owners are white!!!

Making scapegoats of certain people makes it easier for us to feel good about our selves by being able to point to them and say “I’m not like that,” while blithely allowing racism to run the machine hidden behind the curtain.

Dig Deeper

  1. Go to this website and look at the statistics that compare number of players of color to owners and coaches. What are the differences between the sports? What racial practices may result in these outcomes?
  2. View this video example of black face minstrelsy. What does this type of practice tell us about racism 1.0? In what ways do we still allow this type of depiction of racial groups today? (This article on yellow face may help you if you are stuck).
  3. As pointed out by McNamee and Miller in their book Meritocracy Myth, “In industrial societies such as the United States, inequality is justified by an ideology of meritocracy. America is seen as the land of opportunity where people get out of the system what they put into it.  Ostensibly, the most talented, hardest working, and most virtuous get ahead.  The lazy, shiftless, and indolent fall behind.  You may not be held responsible for where you start out in life, but you are responsible for where you end up.  If you are truly meritorious, you will overcome any obstacle and succeed.” From what you read above, how do you think meritocracy relates to colorblindness?
  4. One of the underlying points of this blog post is that racism will continue as long as well meaning people (who do not have racist opinions themselves) don’t pay attention to the racism going on behind the curtain (in our institutions and social structures). Explain this argument and give your opinion.