As we noted earlier this week the controversy over the racist comments of Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling demonstrated conclusively just how much American culture had changed in the 50 years since the civil-rights movement put an end to Jim Crow laws. Expressing hostility to African-Americans in that manner was enough not only to cause Sterling to be banned from the National Basketball Association but to make him perhaps the most reviled person in the country. Though the unanimity with which every sector of the country denounced Sterling proved how marginal such prejudice had become, many on the left–and especially among those who seek to keep organizations dedicated to pretending that America is still a racist nation alive–preferred to see it as evidence of the endemic hate that still lingers in the hearts of Americans. But it turns out that the proof that they weren’t entirely wrong came from an unlikely source: a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi unwittingly provided evidence that race-based hate is alive and well when, in an interview with a Nation of Islam radio program, he not only claimed that all opposition to President Obama was rooted in racism and that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is an example of this but that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is “an Uncle Tom.” Thompson isn’t backing down and, in an interview with CNN, even suggested that he could say such things because he’s black. Given the lack of outrage about this, especially from liberals who take it as an article of faith that political incivility is strictly a conservative problem, he may be right. But the outburst in an interview with a program sponsored by a hate group does raise an interesting question: Which is more dangerous? A racist NBA owner or a bigoted member of Congress?
Thompson’s defenders, if there are any willing to publicly engage on this subject, will no doubt claim that his exemption from the racist charge is not only due to his being black but because what he was doing was complaining about racism. But this is an argument that doesn’t hold water.
There is nothing that is more pernicious to democracy than efforts that seek to divide the country on racial lines. That’s exactly what he was doing, not only by lending his presence to extremists like the Nation of Islam but by claiming that criticism of President Obama’s policies is inherently based in prejudice against his race. Seeking to smear all Republicans and Obama critics as racist is not only false but clearly an effort to set up a permanent political war between blacks and whites. Moreover, his attack on Thomas, which was based on the fact that the Supreme Court Justice is black and not just on the content of his decisions, is just as unreasonable. It goes beyond incivility and crosses into the realm of racial epithet. Thompson’s rant can’t be defended as the complaint of a racial minority when it is, for all intents and purposes, as a manifesto of intolerance, racial division, and hate.
The facts of political life are such that minorities can get away with making statements that would end the careers of whites. Given the inherent advantages that accrue to being part of the majority perhaps this is an understandable tradeoff. Yet it’s worth asking even as we all join in the national disgust-fest about Sterling whether it is far more dangerous for the country to have a person like Thompson spouting hate speech in Congress than for the owner of the Clippers to be a bigot. Sterling’s statements were outrageous and rightly earned him a permanent exile from his team and decent society. But so long as people like Thompson are crowding the public square, it appears the greater threat to both civility and the growing sense of racial harmony in American society are bigots like the Mississippi congressman.