Commentary Magazine


Topic: Donald Sterling

Which Is More Dangerous: a Racist NBA Owner or a Bigoted Member of Congress?

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?

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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.

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Debating Race in America

Mike Gallagher is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host who has had me on his program many times in the past. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes not. But in my experience Gallagher, a fine and intelligent man, is willing to give me my say and explore our differences of opinion. That occurred earlier this week, when he had me on to discuss my post “Being Black in America,” which was written in the aftermath of the racist comments by Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, comments we learned about within a matter of days. 

I told Gallagher that America has made tremendous strides on race and that there are pernicious forces on the left who recklessly ascribe racism to those with whom we disagree. At the same time, racism–including subtle forms of racism–still exists, probably more than many of us imagine. Moreover, many young black males today are viewed with suspicion, in some cases for reasons that may be understandable but are still unfortunate. What if you’re a law-abiding young African American and yet because of your race there’s a cloud of suspicion over you? How would you feel?

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Mike Gallagher is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host who has had me on his program many times in the past. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes not. But in my experience Gallagher, a fine and intelligent man, is willing to give me my say and explore our differences of opinion. That occurred earlier this week, when he had me on to discuss my post “Being Black in America,” which was written in the aftermath of the racist comments by Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, comments we learned about within a matter of days. 

I told Gallagher that America has made tremendous strides on race and that there are pernicious forces on the left who recklessly ascribe racism to those with whom we disagree. At the same time, racism–including subtle forms of racism–still exists, probably more than many of us imagine. Moreover, many young black males today are viewed with suspicion, in some cases for reasons that may be understandable but are still unfortunate. What if you’re a law-abiding young African American and yet because of your race there’s a cloud of suspicion over you? How would you feel?

Mr. Gallagher conceded there’s merit to the last point, but what troubled him is that by his lights I am (inadvertently) perpetuating a myth, which is that America is deeply racist; that my COMMENTARY post is saying that Sterling is “a pretty good representative of how all whites feel”; and that by suggesting that someone like Sterling “is kind of the way this culture is” I’m setting back race relations by decades. In addition, Gallagher asserted that I was taking these two “overblown” cases and ascribing far too much importance into them. Needless to say, I believe Gallagher overstated my views by a considerable degree.

In any event, near the end of our conversation Gallagher, playing off my statement that it’s worth re-thinking just a bit what it must feel like to be black in America today, challenged me (twice) to write a column on what it feels like to be white in America today. He spoke with passion about his liberal son, who is no racist but who graduated from college saying, “Black people hate me because I’m white.” Mr. Gallagher went on to say this:

We are supposed to be guilty.  We are supposed to feel shame over what people did 50 or 100 or 200 years ago that we had nothing to do with. And we are constantly accused of having a hatred in our heart that we don’t have.

Which brings me to my main observation. Our exchange is an illustration of two people–in this case two conservatives–looking at the same events and reacting in very different ways. I interpreted events through one prism, Gallagher through another. In thinking things through I became somewhat less confident in my previous assimilation of things; he became somewhat more certain (or at least emphatic) that his approach was the right one. In the aftermath of the comments by Bundy and Sterling, I was thinking of racism as it applies to African Americans; he wanted to bring the focus back to racism directed against whites. Here’s the thing, though: We might both have valid points but for a host of reasons–life experiences, disposition and temperament, the people we interact with and who influence our thinking, et cetera–be drawn to one rather than the other.

In their book The Mystery of God, the theologians Steven D. Boyer and Christopher A. Hall describe what they call the more sophisticated proponents of postmodernism–those who are very explicitly not advocating a wholesale abandonment of truth. “Instead,” Boyer and Hall write,

they are inviting us to recognize that our knowledge of the truth is always influenced by who we are as finite, fallen creatures. The truth that we know is never “absolute” because we ourselves are not absolute. For human persons who are both finite and fallen, no single truth claim, nor set of truth claims, can ever capture the whole truth, completely undistorted and undiluted, with nothing whatsoever falling through the cracks. Our knowledge is always partial, always in need of correction or refinement.

Every one of us would probably do better to bear these words in mind, and to see how they apply not only to others but also to us.

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Sterling Blowback Proves Sotomayor Wrong

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.

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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.

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Being Black in America Today

Recently I wrote a highly critical piece about Senator Rand Paul and his former close aide, Jack Hunter, who repeatedly wrote racist rants, both in his own name and as “The Southern Avenger.”

Since then, the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who garnered attention during his high-profile showdown with the Bureau of Land Management, was quoted in the New York Times wondering about the status of “Negros.”

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” according to Bundy. “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

And this weekend the sports world was rocked by the release of tape-recorded conversations allegedly of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, making racist statements to his girlfriend. (According to press reports, Sterling has a documented history of supposedly racist behavior, having been sued twice by the federal government for refusing to rent apartments to Blacks and Latinos.) 

All of which got me to wondering how, based on these incidents, I would feel if I were a black person in America in 2014. And the answer is: Pretty sick to my stomach.

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Recently I wrote a highly critical piece about Senator Rand Paul and his former close aide, Jack Hunter, who repeatedly wrote racist rants, both in his own name and as “The Southern Avenger.”

Since then, the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who garnered attention during his high-profile showdown with the Bureau of Land Management, was quoted in the New York Times wondering about the status of “Negros.”

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” according to Bundy. “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

And this weekend the sports world was rocked by the release of tape-recorded conversations allegedly of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, making racist statements to his girlfriend. (According to press reports, Sterling has a documented history of supposedly racist behavior, having been sued twice by the federal government for refusing to rent apartments to Blacks and Latinos.) 

All of which got me to wondering how, based on these incidents, I would feel if I were a black person in America in 2014. And the answer is: Pretty sick to my stomach.

I’ve written many times about the harmful effects of people promiscuously and recklessly throwing out the charge of racism. I still hold to that view. But what may need to be amended is my assumption about racial attitudes.

For many people of my generation and younger, who grew up in the post-Civil Rights era, racism–while obviously not fully extinguished–is something that belongs in America’s past; an ugly stain that has more or less been wiped away by law and shifting attitudes. And there’s no question that racism has receded over the decades; the fact that a black man could be elected and reelected president is evidence of that. So is the swift and harsh condemnations of both Bundy and Sterling. Still, it may well be the case that bigotry is more widespread than many of us have assumed. That public displays of racism are rare but private hostility toward minorities, and especially African Americans, is much more common. They exist, but in the shadows.

I understand the counter-argument, well-stated by Hotair.com’s Jazz Shaw, and it goes like this: People like Bundy (67) and Sterling (80) are elderly men who live in isolated and insular worlds. Shaw points out that for the millennial generation, “Questions of racial differences seem to be a foreign concept to them.”

“Is actual racism completely dead in America?” Shaw asks. “No … I’m not saying that. But from the looks of things out on the street it’s dying a natural death. I wouldn’t read too much into the comments of septuagenarians who grew up steeped in a different culture.”

Fair enough. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to read too little into them, either. At a minimum the comments by Hunter (age 39), Bundy, and Sterling are at least a reminder that we’re not all that far removed from a time when feculent views on race were fairly common. And while the law should be colorblind, our society is not. For most of American history, slavery and segregation were legal, at least in large parts of the nation. The march from Selma to Montgomery occurred less than 50 year ago.

I wouldn’t want to discount for a moment the progress America has made on race, or what the progress says about America. But we also need to keep this in mind as well: Slavery was America’s original sin, and freeing the slaves and later allowing blacks to eat at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s–while enlightened and humane acts–hardly expunged the malignancy of racism from the human heart. And while I haven’t shifted my views on policy or my belief that those on the left who invoke racism to explain virtually every difference on policy are having a pernicious effect, I do wonder whether my own experiences have caused me to overlook some persistently disturbing realities. What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing, C.S. Lewis wrote; and none of us stands in a place where we see the complete landscape, all the hills and all the valleys, the beauty and the scars.  

Speaking for myself at least, it’s worth re-thinking just a bit what it must feel like to be black in America today. 

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