Is there anything more depressing than how Americans discuss race? In politics, allegations of racism and claims of "dog whistles" get tossed around on the thinnest of pretexts to delegitimize opponents and shut down reasonable dialogue on important issues.
The response to such demagoguery often comes in the form of denials that any problem of racism exists, at least in practical terms. We've eliminated state-imposed discrimination, and that's good enough. A few individuals, mainly older, still harbor racial resentment, but we have put the problem behind us because we've progressed so much in such a short period of time!
The attacks, almost all of them unfair and mean-spirited, push people on all sides into closing their eyes and their hearts. They demean the very charge of racism.
And then someone like Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling comes along to remind us what racism really looks like.
What's most shocking about this latest outburst of retrograde racism — which TMZ reported this weekend after obtaining an alleged recording of comments Sterling had made — is that it came from the sports industry, which has long been seen as an example of integration and cultural progress.
If it turns out to be legitimate, the audio, recorded by Sterling's girlfriend V. Stiviano, is sickening. It features Sterling telling her that she shouldn't bring blacks to Clippers games, including NBA legend Magic Johnson.
In fact, it's so bad that it almost seems like a parody of racism, at least to modern ears. Most Americans of a certain age grew up with an older relative or two who wouldn't have thought twice about saying this kind of stuff in public. Or perhaps they know someone who made jokes about minority groups that may have been perfectly acceptable a few decades ago, but not today.
The Sterling controversy is the equivalent of having one of those relatives make an appearance on The Jerry Springer Show. It makes us cringe not because it's completely unknown to us, but instead all too familiar, while seeming to come from a different era.
It should give us pause before we take a victory lap on the demise of American racism. The classic civil-rights battles over Jim Crow and voting rights took place less than 50 years ago, within living memory for millions of Americans. Peter Wehner wondered in his Commentary column yesterday "how, based on these incidents, I would feel if I were a black person in America in 2014." His answer: "Pretty sick to my stomach."
Indeed. And one doesn't have to be black to feel sickened by it, especially coming from someone whose business and social interests have for so long been intertwined with the African-American community. Our hopes for national reconciliation after the centuries-long legacy of slavery and Jim Crow rested on the premise that getting to know each other and live with each other in our communities would eliminate animosity and ignorance. The reason that Sterling's alleged rant hits a nerve is because it presents at least an anecdotal challenge to that premise.
However, the news in this case isn't entirely depressing. First, Sterling has no public-sector power. Second, he knew enough to hide his true feelings from his private-sector interests, well enough that he was about to accept an honor from the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which has understandably rescinded the invitation. Those embarrassing relatives from so long ago usually lacked the self-realization to hide their retrograde attitudes. "I'm sure there are some Sterling supporters lurking in the shadows," Bernard Goldberg wrote this week. "But that's good news too. They're in the shadows! That's not always how it was in America."
When they come out of the shadows, the reaction is thankfully far from the uncomfortable shrug and embarrassed silence of yesteryear. Sterling's team protested by turning their shirts inside-out, while a group of Golden State Warrior fans (including one Google exec) ridiculed Sterling with signs pointing out that they had brought "a black guy 2 the game." The NBA has begun to discuss what to do with Sterling; the chair of the player's union, former NBA star Kevin Johnson, wants the league to determine whether Sterling is "fit to be an NBA owner."
Even better, there may be a chance for a little payback for Magic Johnson. The former Laker's Guggenheim Partners attempted to buy the Lakers last year, which would have been a real jewel in Johnson's cap. Yahoo sports analyst Adrian Wojnarowski notes that Guggenheim still wants to expand its Southern California sports holdings. What better way for the NBA to resolve this embarrassment than by arranging a sale from Sterling to Johnson, the man Sterling didn't want Stiviano to bring to his basketball games? Real life seldom provides that kind of poetic justice, but one can hope.
In fact, that's true in all kinds of justice in the real world. We may not see perfect justice and an end to racism in the hearts of all Americans in our lifetime, but we can certainly hope to see it — and even in this episode take heart in how much we have done in such a short time. But we should not allow political demagoguery to blind us to the fact that we haven't succeeded yet, and that those who lived through worse times understandably worry that we could relapse.
Instead of pretending that racism doesn't exist, or pretending that nothing has changed and everything is racism, let's focus on the real problems that still persist.