If there is a more unpopular man in America, or anywhere else, today than Donald Sterling, I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes. The opprobrium that has rained down on the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers in the wake of the publicizing of his racist rant has transcended the world of sports or even that of politics. In the space of a week Sterling has become a living, breathing symbol of hate. No one is lining up to rationalize, let alone defend, his disgusting comments about African-Americans. The universal disdain for Sterling is the reason why the National Basketball Association is not only punishing him with a fine and suspension but seeks to force him to give up a franchise that is estimated to be worth more than half a billion dollars.
And yet much of the commentary about Sterling as well as the less earthshaking dustup about the racial comments made by tax scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy last week is focused on trying to sell us on just how bad things are. Many liberal voices are being raised today amid the Sterling furor to claim that not only is Sterling-like racism endemic but that his hate was of a piece with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. Such sentiments were heard today not only in the leftist echo chamber that is MSNBC but in the New Yorker, where legal writer Jeffrey Toobin claimed that Sterling proved that Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action was correct. Sotomayor asserted that racism in the U.S. was real and pervasive and justified, seemingly indefinitely, a regime of racial preferences in school admissions. Such a response is not only transparently cynical in terms of its attempt to exploit a controversy to further the liberal political agenda; it misreads what this episode tells us about the United States in 2014.
Toobin takes Chief Justice John Roberts to task for a now oft-quoted statement in which he rightly asserted, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” In his view, more racial discrimination in the form of affirmative action quotas is necessary because people like Sterling and Bundy still exist. That two such figures would utter prejudicial statements is therefore enough to render Sotomayor’s vision of an America torn by racial strife and thus in need of permanent measures to correct the injustices of the Jim Crow era.
But surely even Toobin has noticed that far from being universally held or backed up by the institutions of society or government, recent events have proved just how right Roberts was. Sterling and Bundy have showed that anyone who dares to speak in this manner is not only scolded but also effectively shunned in a manner more reminiscent of closed religious societies dealing with public sinners than someone expressing an outlier view in a 24/7 news cycle.
While we can all join in the condemnation of Sterling, Americans ought to be celebrating the fact that the expression of open racism in this manner isn’t merely controversial but is enough to render a wealthy and powerful man beyond the pale of decent society. Far from a commentary about how far we have yet to go to achieve equality, the Sterling brouhaha demonstrates just the opposite. That America has become a place where it is not possible to disdain associating with the likes of Magic Johnson and keep your frontcourt seats at NBA games shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. After all, this is a country that elected and then reelected a black man to the White House. If there is anything to learn from this story it is that the America that tolerated institutionalized racism only a half-century ago has become an entirely different and much better country.
The real lesson here is that while Sterling and Bundy may have thought lots of people agreed with them, the reaction to their statements has illustrated just how isolated racists are on the American public square. Though the 50 years of progress since the death of Jim Crow and even the election of Barack Obama does not mean we are a perfect, color-blind society, it does demonstrate that ours is a country in which racism has become the worst possible offense to public sensibilities. The racial quotas Sotomayor and Toobin advocate are not only as unnecessary as they are counter-productive; they are also rooted in a clearly outdated evaluation of American society. A place where Donald Sterling is the most hated man is not compatible with Sotomayor’s vision of a land where racial discrimination is rampant. As much as we may lament Sterling and Bundy as vestiges of a bygone era of hate, we should be grateful that they are treated with such general disdain and draw the appropriate conclusions.