[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.