Donald Sterling is “a Racist”: Feel Better Now?

[This post was written by Joyce M. Bell & Wendy Leo Moore]

On April 25th, 2014, TMZ released an audio recording of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers chiding his girlfriend for posting photos of herself with Magic Johnson on “The Instagram.” Pleading with her that she can spend her whole life with black people as long as it’s in private and she doesn’t bring them to his game, his tirade sounds like something from another, earlier, less enlightened period of U.S. history. The Internet lit up with calls for Sterling’s head: Clippers players should go on strike and we should boycott the NBA. Prominent musicians and artists spoke out against him and the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP pulled the Lifetime Achievement Award he was slated to receive. Even President Obama, who has been conspicuously silent on issues of race commented on the issue.

Almost all of the commentary has treated Donald Sterling as an anomaly, as an aberration—a throwback to Jim Crow racism. Even President Obama, who, in his response said, “The United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race and slavery and segregation, that’s still there, the vestiges of discrimination,” falls into this trap. Assuming that Sterling’s comments represent the normally silent and marginal remains of a bygone era that will “percolate up every so often,” is either a misunderstanding of contemporary race relations, or a disingenuous attempt to mischaracterize them.

In reality, we live in a society that is fundamentally structured by race and characterized by persistent racial inequality. Many social scientists have argued that contemporary racism is more subtle, institutionally embedded, and behind the scenes, than the in-your-face, “Negroes need not apply”, racism of the Jim Crow era. Therefore, when “old-fashioned” racism rears its ugly head, scholars and pundits alike seem shocked, or at least disgusted. Incidents like the release of Sterling’s openly racially hostile comments to his girlfriend, Paula Deen’s admission that she uses the n-word and the discrimination suit against her, and the racist comments of Nevada rancher Clive Bundy who suggests African Americans were better off a slaves than they are today, all become the stuff of headlines, media and scholars alike rush to comment and denounce the remaining racist expressions of a bygone era.

We would like to first of all suggest that attitudes like Sterling’s are not rare. Rather, they offered a glimpse into a backstage that many whites witness but rarely speak of. This is the backstage where white daughters are forbidden to date black boys, black jokes are still funny, and private dinner table conversations include the casual use of racial epithets. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the media spectacle around incidents like this create a racist boogey man that average white people can point the finger at, a tactic that serves to tacitly define “racism,” provides white people with a deviant racist other from which they can disassociate, and simultaneously obscures the multiple ways in which whites participate in color-blind and institutionalized racism.

The self-righteous indignation that the media has shown and that is filling up many Facebook and Twitter feeds in the last couple days about Donald Sterling says, “look, he’s the real racist.” Sterling offers well-meaning liberal white people an opportunity to feel good about themselves for actively denouncing the racist, and gives them an example of “real racism” that they can point to and distance themselves from. As a result, the Sterling incident diverts the attention away from the more pernicious aspects of structural racism; the racism that is embedded in the institutions we all interact in, and shapes the life chances and lived daily lives of people of color.

So while Donald Sterling will face the consequences of his speech, as we all must, we cannot let this occasion pass without pointing out that, for one, he is not a lone aberration. He does not represent a “vestige” or a left over “legacy” of slavery and segregation. On the contrary, Donald Sterling is much more representative than we might like to think. But more than this, Donald Sterling does not let the rest of us off the hook. Racism is not simply a set of attitudes to which one can subscribe or not. Rather, racism works in and through all social institutions. So while we point the finger at Sterling, let us also bring the same critical interrogation to all of the social, political, and economic forces that perpetuate racial inequality. Let this also be an opportunity to take responsibility for the less obvious ways that even well-meaning white people engage in colorblind racism and benefit from the status quo subjugation of people of color through inaction.

How Does it Feel to be a Problem? A Reflection on Trayvon Martin

My heart has been heavy since I heard about Trayvon Martin. I’ve read all the coverage and signed all the petitions. I’ve talked about it with family and friends and sat my own teenaged son down for yet another “talk.” I have read the commentary of a lot of very smart people on this case that make the historical and social intellectual connections better than I could have. Like Mark Anthony Neal, here. R. L’Heureux Lewis here. And the Crunk Feminist Collective here.

What is compelling me to write is much more personal than academic. I have a 15-year-old son. He’s 5’11” and football linebacker size (left guard, actually). He is sweet and kind and mild mannered. He is polite to adults and more courteous than your average teenager. What breaks my heart is that it’s not enough. There isn’t enough kind or polite or courteous in the world to outweigh the skin he’s in. This marker that he carries with him every day, that in his adolescent daze he is only partially aware of, sometimes… is everything. It was all there was when George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon was suspicious. It was everything when Amadou Diallo was gunned down in New York City, there was nothing more when Andre Burgess was shot in the city carrying a candy bar, it was THE thing when Jordan Miles was beat down in Pittsburgh. It is what led WEB Dubois to ask, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

The fact that my son walks through the world looking suspicious just because of who he is, because of his body, just destroys me sometimes. It makes me want to hold him close, to limit his movements, to tell him, no…you can’t go out.

“Mom, why? Don’t you trust me?” “It’s not you baby… It’s not you.” How many mothers and fathers have had this talk with their sons? Did Trayvon’s mother have that talk with him? “Son, when you’re out in the world, people don’t just see you as you are.” “Boy, when you’re in a store, make sure you don’t look like you could be stealing anything.” “My son, if the police stop you, make sure you cooperate.” “Baby, when you’re in public…not too loud, not too fast, not too slow, don’t look at them in the eye, step off the curb, shuffle your feet, cooperate, lay down, smile—but not too hard or too long, put your hands behind your back, pull your pants up, take your hood down BECAUSE THEY ARE KILLING BLACK BABIES OUT HERE.”

Most of the parents of black children I know have had that conversation with their children. “You’re black honey…and that means certain things to certain people.” We do it to protect them, to give them a lens so that when they’re treated out of line they don’t think they’re crazy, or that something is wrong with them. We do it so they can survive this world that encodes crime and drugs and lust and danger on their bodies. And yet, there’s Trayvon, there’s Jordan, and hundreds of others beaten and killed because they wear the ‘suspect’ suit as their birthright. It’s not new—of course. It’s old. It’s Emmett Till old. It’s slavery old. Both the racism and this talk, this lesson, is as old as black dirt.

And despite the fact that I’m a sociologist and generally avoid individual level tomes on race, what I’m really thinking about right now is “How does it feel to be a problem?” How does this knowledge affect our sons? The ones we have left. What we know is that our children go to schools that look more and more like prisons. That have punitive cultures where sagging pants, facial hair and braids earn behavior demerits. Where they are asked to walk along lines painted on the floor. Where they are more likely to be disciplined, suspended and labeled special needs than their white classmates. (This study has the data and more references.)

I’m thinking about all of the potential mindspace that is stifled or lost because of the need to not draw suspicion or negative attention from school or legal authorities. I wonder what it must feel like to walk through the world without so many damned unearned restrictions. I’m also thinking about how tragic it must be to not be able to see Trayvon Martin’s humanity. How limiting it is for someone like George Zimmerman to walk through the world in fear of black children. How truly sub-human it is to not be able to see humanity. And how the entrenched anti-black sentiment we live with every day is to blame.

I guess today I’m thinking of these two sides of the coin, what would the world look like if black boys had all of their available ideas and dreams and hopes and could walk through the world in a way that reflected them? And what if the rest of us could open up to our full humanity by being able to see these sons in their full humanity?

But mostly, my heart is heavy and I’m having trouble sleeping, and I have a headache because my son is Trayvon Martin. Because I have participated in limiting my child because I know that George Zimmerman exists, and that some of them have badges and the authority of the state behind them when they kill black boys. Because, “It’s not you baby…It’s not you.”

So please sign the petitions, go to the protests, call the Sanford County chief of police—I’m sending him Skittles at Chief, Bill Lee. Sanford Police 815 West 13th Street, Sanford, Fl 32771. I also invite you to join me in thinking creatively about parenting as activism and activism as parenting in a way that combines the lessons we teach our children with the larger struggle against media misrepresentation, racism in the criminal justice system, unequal policing, racial inequality in education and the rest.