What Happens When We Move On?
So now what?
For the last week, the news cycle has been filled with the Donald Sterling story. Equal parts salacious and pathetic, the released tapes of the Clippers owner’s racist remarks were tailor-made for the echo chamber of 24 hour media. Contrary to the breathless coverage that’s been devoted to it however, his recorded conversation was in no way surprising given Sterling’s history. What was somewhat unforeseen and far more significant has been watching the reaction to the story, which has yielded a look into the mindset of our society and the lessons we repeatedly forget in history.
Monitoring the consumption of the story, one cannot help but be struck by the realization that there is a fundamental misunderstanding in this country of what racism really entails.
Understanding where this disconnect arises goes to the roots of the construction of race in this country. One of the successes of the American Civil Rights movement was framing racism as a moral failure that stained the national tapestry. It tapped directly into the promise of what the United States was supposed to represent coming in the post-WW2 era; and being driven by religious leaders, it made sense to channel that notion of a collectively wounded soul that aspired to be greater. Using the American mythos of freedom and self-improvement, and stirring that spirit into action to end racism was a masterstroke. The approach was unquestionably successful for activism and organizing, and produced some of the largest gains in overturning unjust legislation since the Reconstruction era.
In light of the subsequent 50 years, the unintentional consequence has been that the conversation of racism became viewed SOLELY as a moralistic issue. When filtered through a historical lens that seeks to soften the rough edges and lionize great successes of our country without confronting them, the multi-faceted reality has been lost. Racism is structural, institutional, and carries with it a pernicious power dynamic as well as tangible economic and legal costs. Too often its impact is reduced to merely the gauche language and behaviors associated with caricatures of the cartoonish bigot. As problematic and impactful as hate speech is, too often it’s easier to focus exclusively on eradicating that and obscuring the conversation from the full scope of damage that racism causes. This fallacy is laid bare when a man with Donald Sterling’s long history of racism is brought down for a distasteful conversation with his mistress, and not the hundreds of families that were displaced because of his (multiple) housing discrimination cases.
If we take anything away from this fiasco it’s the need to name racism with all its specificity, so that we we can finally have the hard conversations about its true face. The degree to which we as a nation are hampered by racial cowardice is on full display with cases like Donald Sterling’s. While stopping short of an outright farce, because the Clippers’ owner and land magnate deserves to be raked over the coals for his racism and misogyny, what got Sterling into trouble was not his history of housing discrimination, it was his inflammatory words caught on tape and turned in to a gossip website. It was not endangering the health, wealth and futures of countless Black and Latino families who were displaced and had their lives materially damaged, it was the collective distress of reminding us that America in 2014 is not a post-racial nirvana that sparked outrage. Felling Sterling for his (not so) private thoughts, rather than the public actions and implementation of racism is like seeing Al Capone being brought down on tax evasion charges.
More than a decade ago in 2003, Sterling and his wife Shelly were subject to a federal lawsuit for discriminatory housing practices and ordered to pay a settlement of $4.9 million (although he did not have to admit guilt). Three years later in 2006, Sterling was forced to pay $2.75 million to the U.S. Department of Justice, the single largest penalty ever obtained by that department for housing discrimination for refusing to rent to Black and Latino renters. According to testimony, Sterling, the largest landowner in Beverly Hills wanted to specifically force those tenants out because “the blacks in this building, they smell, they’re not clean… And it’s because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day.”
Court documents from the 2006 lawsuit state that, “Kandynce Jones was under threat of eviction by [Sterling] even though she had never missed a rent payment. Ms. Jones, who is a senior citizen and a person with a disability, suffered a stroke caused by the stress [of Sterling’s] housing practices. On July 21, 2003, Ms. Jones passed away as a result of that stroke.” While Sterling’s remarks about Magic Johnson are almost laughably offensive, we ignore the pain of the Kandynce Joneses that he has, in at least one instance, mortally wounded. When we talk about housing discrimination we’re talking about the kind of structural racism that affects people’s lives. To quote the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates:
If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.
It is without saying that housing segregation goes far beyond the menace of Donald Sterling and the conversations of moral impropriety. The economic costs of discrimination are almost mindblowing. From just one case in Baltimore, Wells Fargo reached a settlement with the Justice Department to pay $175 million for discriminatory lending practices. Consider the collective impact these racist practices have had in every major city and you begin to see the price tag on the level of damage. Home ownership is the single largest asset for the majority of families in this country and systematic denial of that opportunity for African Americans at the least deserves the level of attention afforded to the almost annual public discourse on “The N-Word”.
Make no mistake, this practice is without any doubt institutional. The National Association of Real Estate Boards’ code of ethics stressed as recently as 1950 that realtors were not to introduce into a neighborhood “any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.” And a 1943 brochure clarified that unwanted presence, putting sex workers and bootleggers on par with “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.” From redlining, “contract selling”, and restrictive covenants, to urban renewal and white flight, the means through which housing discrimination was enforced grow more sophisticated but its intent remains as plain as day.
The subprime mortgage lending that played a significant part in the crash and recession of the U.S. economy, showed as recently as 2006 that a Black family making over $200,000 was still more likely to be given a subprime loan than a white family making under $30,000. Quoting from the Atlantic, who has great work on housing, “Relative to comparable white applicants, and controlling for geographic factors, Blacks were 2.8 times more likely to be denied for a loan, and Latinos were two times more likely. When they were approved, blacks and Latinos were 2.4 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants.”. This is the refined system of racism at work, these are kinds of things Donald Sterling has been forced to pay millions in damages to the U.S. Justice and Housing departments, yet we still insist on parsing his language in a domestic disagreement.
The galling examples from Sterling, and the volumes of research on racial segregation through housing policies (particularly in Chicago), are only a part of the picture of the elegant and almost invisible racism that we don’t talk about. A study by the consultancy firm Nextions submitted identical research memos and sent them to 60 different partners at law firms to review the piece. The only difference in the reports was the fictional “Thomas Meyer” being identified as Caucasian to one group, African American to the other. When they believed the author was Black, reviewers gave an overall poorer grade (3.2 vs. 4.1), found twice as many spelling errors (5.8 vs. 2.9) and more technical and factual errors.
This was followed closely after by a similar study that found a sampling of 6,500 university professors when solicited for mentorship “ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from white males. … We see a 25-percentage-point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males versus women and minorities.” These are crucial points in understanding the impact of racism in our society. Simply by being perceived as African American the same candidate is less likely to find a mentor in college, (directly affecting graduate school enrollment and future earning potential) and your work is seen to be inferior to a white male counterpart even producing quite literally the same submission. These findings also correspond with studies that you’re 50% less likely to be contacted for a job interview if your name is perceived as being Black, more likely to receive differential medical treatment because of unconscious bias, and more likely to be mistakenly shot simply on the basis of subconscious bias.
While it’s possible that these studies happened to find particularly virulent racists who set out to disadvantage Black people (and women in the mentorship study), there is no evidence of that. By all indications these were perfectly average Americans with no particular racial animus in their hearts. Arguments can and have been marshaled that these practices therefore were not racist because there is no demonstrable bad intent. In full view of a system that continually and repeatedly disadvantages particular groups over another, known intent is insignificant in light of its effect. The most dangerous aspect of racism is that it does not need to be actively practiced by all parties to succeed. Our daily institutions were built upon a foundation of racism. It is ingrained in our everyday culture, and designed to operate so that people are barely aware of its interconnectivity and often find themselves unknowing or unwilling participants.
Despite, or rather because of this, there is almost inevitable pushback that not everything is about race. The apparent lack of malice aforethought colors the perception of racism in housing discrimination, hiring practices, and the culture at large. There is a fundamental need to believe in our own inherent fairness at the underpinning of the very American dream. The spirit of rugged individualism so intrinsic to our national identity, is based on the notion that hard work and perseverance will be rewarded. After all, there are millions of poor whites in this country as well, isn’t it simply a function of capitalism and not inherent racism?
3 While there is an acknowledgement that there cannot always be equity, that belief rests upon faith that those failings are unfortunate accidents and not the structurally designed and maintained outcomes they are.
The acceptance of the historical framing of the moral imperative is therefore uniquely appealing. It feeds into the desire of the individual to be perceived as innately good, and absolves responsibility for those who “don’t have a racist bone in their body” in a simplistic delineation of right and wrong. Racist, sexist, bigots like Donald Sterling are bad apples and the exception rather than a reflection of the norm. Maintaining the notion of racism as the comfortably obvious domain of the villain is a necessary delusion to preserve the sense of progress. Were we to name it with the elegance and complication that our society practices to this day, we incriminate ourselves in its continued existence.
As a consequence, we have a generation who is morally opposed to racial prejudice in greater numbers than any before it, yet is unwilling to openly discuss it. A David Binder report commissioned by MTV of all places, found that 90 percent of so-called Millenials believe in equality regardless of race. However only 37 percent were raised in homes that talked about race (30% among white respondents), and just 20 percent were comfortable having a conversation about bias. This is a generation that believes strongly in the immorality of racism, yet is utterly uncomfortable with the idea of confronting race.
It’s instructive to consider this is a generation who has been taught the amorphous notion of a post-racial society is the answer to racial strife. To wit, 73 percent of those polled felt that never considering race would improve society, and almost half (48%) that it was wrong to draw attention to it even a positive context. Likely stemming from a misreading of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or at least its modern day repackaging, too many have taken a call to treat each other fairly regardless of race, to the extreme of pretending the constructs do not exist in our society. The notion that, if we collectively didn’t talk about race it won’t be a problem, again only seeks to deal with the very base strain of racism and prejudice concerning interpersonal animus. Structural power dynamics and institutionalized damage as a consequence are rendered invisible through colorblindness.
When discussing historical understanding of race, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in many ways has become the fulcrum upon which the scales are balanced. For as complex and nuanced as the Civil Rights movement was, he remains the fixture through which events are recognized and legitimized. For that very reason, far too often Dr. King’s words are sanitized. His messages about economic equality (he was murdered in the midst of organizing a Poor People’s March in 1968), police brutality and housing discrimination are overlooked and erased from history in order to preserve the more genteel message of love and equality. The further removed we are from that period there seems to be a growing disconnect between his use of moral authority as a tactic, and the broader legal and economic imperative he strove for with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. The perception held by many is that of linear progress from the mid 1960s to the present day resulting in the election of the first African American President. The Binder report speaks to this line of thinking showing 62 percent of millenials felt having a Black President proved there was now no opportunity gap. A 2013 Pew Research report found similar polling on racial attitudes, but also provided useful statistical data that tells a different story.
The study, commissioned upon the 50th anniversary of the Dream speech, used demographic trends to track the progress of racial equality both in public opinion and economic and class indicators. The data corresponds with the opinions expressed in the Binder report with 45 percent believing American society has made significant “progress towards achieving Dr. King’s dream of racial equality”. The facts however complicate that thesis as the median annual household income gap between Blacks and whites (adjusted for inflation) has increased by $8,000 since 1964, and the median household wealth as of 2011 was now nearly 15 times greater for whites than for African Americans ($91,405 and $6,446 respectively). That mind-numbing gulf has actually increased since 1984 (the first year data is available) despite an uptick in the 1990s.
Despite these figures, 43 percent of whites (and 41% of all polled) felt that the average Black person was about as well off as their white counterpart. This is simply factually inaccurate, and not a matter of opinion. Stepping away from debate over the justifications why the numbers are what they are, or their fairness, it is an observable and measurable fact that stark economic inequality exists. It is a failure of public discourse that we have allowed perception to drive reality and we are left with a wholesale disconnect between objective truth and subjective solutions to deal with it. We cannot implement policy for or against a situation when we debate its existence in the face of blinding truth.
Limiting the conversation on the abstraction of race and the focus on conceptual racism rather than its tangible impact, gives rise to the belief by 41 percent of white millenials that the government spends too much time focusing on problems racial minorities. Going even further, 48% of white millenials felt that discrimination against whites was equal to discrimination of racial minorities. This is consistent with a 2012 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute that found 58% of white millenials shared that assessment. This is despite only 10 percent of young white people in the Binder report who reported having felt excluded on the basis of their race, and just 25 percent who say they have been hurt by racial offenses. Given that context, it would be fair to say that these numbers are not borne out of animus, but a population either unable or unwilling to understand the true structure of racism.
So while the media circus will continue to unfold around Donald Sterling, the players’ decision to play
4, or the league’s reaction, the question remains, what do we do when we move on? Lives are at stake, and the longer we remain silent on the things that matter we’re responsible for what happens to the next Kandynce Jones.
1. It is the same mindset consequently (and same repeated misinformation) that also gives rise to a complete misunderstanding of the First Amendment seen here.
The First Amendment and the concept of freedom of speech are strictly held in regards to protecting individual’s (and the press’s) right to redress the government. It does not mean a person has consequence free speech in all aspects of their life, particularly as representatives of a private corporation. Times like these are the reason I keep xkcd handy.
2. The effects of mass incarceration and its targeted affect on African Americans was omitted intentionally. Research on that could easily fill its own article and may yet in this space. Needless to say, a prison rate that is nearly 6 times greater for Blacks than whites despite similar rates of crime and disproportionate sentencing are grievous examples of institutionalized practices.
3. “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” – John C. Calhoun, 1848 on the Senate floor
The intersection of race and class is a very interesting place in society, in capitalism it is an intuitive argument that the only currency is currency. However when looking at the structure upon which institutions and realities are built, it is clear that poor whites were to be placed and valued over even wealthy Blacks. This does not mean that there are not wealthy African Americans who benefit from said system, nor does it preclude poor whites from suffering under it.
4. There has been a sentiment among a fairly vocal segment of the population that the Clippers’ players (particularly the African American ones) should have boycotted the game and refused to play in light of Sterling’s comments. Articles and commentaries have come from far and wide and many of critics, most notably this one, and have go so far as to call the players cowards or selfish for not standing against racism.
I disagree with that stand for a number of reasons. For one, as expressed in this article, the comments heard from Sterling this week don’t differ materially from his record over the last 20 years. This is a man who has been sued for racial and sexual harassment in the workplace numerous times in addition to his housing discrimination cases, so if you had no problem with them playing last week, to generate outrage this week rings hollow.
More to the point, these arguments place the onus on the players, who from a professional standpoint are the victims in this. Without a doubt it would send a powerful message if they refused to play (and for the record, nothing would have made me happier), but why are we demanding the sacrifice of Sterling’s employees and not his partners and titular boss the commissioner? Where is the sacrifice on the part of the fans who seem to be outraged enough to demand action, to boycott attending the game, watching it or buying merchandise which puts money back into Sterling’s pockets? There are the cautionary tales of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges when it comes to players who paid the price for standing up for their beliefs, and yet there is a notion that they are cowards if they don’t choose to suffer for Donald Sterling’s sins? The logic there is flawed on many levels and framing the argument in terms of lacking a willingness to sacrifice obscures the point.
For the agency they do have as men to choose not to participate, the only material power a player’s boycott is as a symbolic gesture. It would be a grand one, and well received by me, but ultimately boycotts are a tactic to generate pressure. That pressure is already evident in the outrage being generated in the response to Sterling’s remarks; it needs to remain focused on him and the structures that are in place to see him profit. Too often we place that burden on those directly affected because we know the ones in power won’t change unless they are forced. This is the time to generate that momentum and go for the top, not waste energy punching down at employees.