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. Read more…