Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angels Clippers, has said some despicable things. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.” There’s more and if you’ve somehow missed the story you can easily search for more of the man’s ugly opinions. It’s disgusting stuff, made more stark coming from someone who makes money from a team comprising many African American players. The recordings that caught Sterling’s honesty are allegations at this point though they line up well with past comments and sentiments.
The reaction to Sterling’s racist opinions has been swift and satisfying. Aside from a few predictable pundits who’ve attempted to redirect attention to Sterling’s girlfriend, most have come down hard, making it clear that there is no place from him in the NBA. The outrage is palpable. How could this man with these dehumanizing views have been a team owner for the past thirty-odd years?
I wonder, though, if the outrage is sincere; if the anger is righteous.
Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.
Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?
For a majority culture that refuses to acknowledge the systemic nature of racism, scapegoats like Donald Sterling will always be necessary to prove our innocence and good will. With our ire heaped on his shoulders, we can ignore things like affirmative action bering chipped away, public school segregation increasing, and new voting laws that marginalize minority voters. Is it that these things are too complicated for our minds to grasp and for our emotions to feel? Or do we know that looking closely in these directions would reveal our own privileges and prejudices?
Could it be that, instead of piling on to Donald Sterling, we should instead thank him for being our scapegoat- for allowing our more acceptable privileges and prejudices to continue unchecked?
“I thought white people didn’t get cold.” The young elementary school student directed his observation to his bemused principal while looking skeptically at my down jacket. I assured him that I definitely get cold and that I needed a warm jacket just like he did to stay warm through Chicago’s cold winters. I was smiling as I drove away from his school, tickled by his innocent assumption that my lighter skin color somehow kept me warmer than did his darker hue. The student’s school and neighborhood are predominately black and while I don’t know the origins of his hypothesis it also wasn’t that surprising. I could imagine my younger self saying something similar.
My son had joined me for this school visit so my first thought as we drove home was about him- how thankful I am for the diverse community to which he belongs. His church, school, neighborhood, and friendships make it hard to hold blind assumptions about others, no matter how innocent the assumptions might be. He will, I pray, grow up within environments that make plain the gifts of cultural uniqueness and the countless commonalities shared between individuals.
A second thought followed and it wasn’t nearly as hopeful.
The isolating cultural dynamics that caused the student to wrongly assume that my race kept me warm are at work elsewhere with much costlier effects. A 2013 Associated Press poll found that racial prejudice had increased during the previous two years. The poll showed that 56% of Americans hold implicit anti-black attitudes while 57% hold anti-hispanic attitudes. Political polarization and implicit segregation contribute to a culture where, contrary to what many believe, prejudice and stereotypes are gaining ground. And unlike the harmless assumption about my insulating skin color, the biases toward black and brown people have devastating implications. One’s likelihood of being stopped by law enforcement, imprisoned, turned away from available housing, denied promotion, or sold shoddy financial instruments are all tied to one’s race. Not my race, by the way. In all of the previous examples my race (and gender) make it unlikely that I will experience any of this ugliness. (See the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I recently linked to for links to many of these examples and check out the This American Life story about housing discrimination.)
The student’s social location led him to assume wrongly, but harmlessly, that white people don’t get cold. The social location of many other people – older and more influential – can lead to equally wrong but far more harmful assumptions about brown and black people. Assumptions that work their way into media norms, policing policy, and a nation’s collective subconscious.
Diversity is no panacea nor is it a guarantor against injustice. However, those of us with the choice to live in relative segregation must acknowledge that our decisions are about more than preference or comfort. A child’s assumption about my light skin’s protective properties is one thing. Colluding with forces that malign and marginalize is something else entirely.
During college, I volunteered for the youth ministry at a church. Every year at the volunteer Christmas party, the two white guys who worked for the ministry dressed up as “black guys from the hood” and performed an entirely unoriginal and unfunny skit that exploited negative black male stereotypes for laughs. I remember looking around the room full of volunteers, seeing the delight in their eyes as they laughed loudly at the racist jokes. I also remember feeling discouraged that a predominantly-white group of Christians (who were supposedly my friends) were laughing at white guys impersonating black guys in extremely unflattering ways. When I asked the pastor (the staff guys’ boss) about the skit, he agreed that it was offensive. But he failed to confront the issue; the skit was performed every year for the multiple years that I served as a volunteer.
The church taught me that racism is acceptable as long as it’s carried out in pursuit of laughs.
“Everything I Know about Racism I Learned in the Church” by Christena Cleveland. Be sure to read the entire post over at her blog. I’m looking forward to hearing from Christena at the Mosaix Conference in November.
I’ve taken a break from a lot of my normal online haunts during Lent and have surely missed a bunch of interesting articles and bits of news, though I’ve not generally been aware of missing anything. Thankfully a friend emailed me Ta-Neshi Coates’ op-ed in The New York Times; I wouldn’t have wanted to miss “The Good, Racist People”. In it, Coates recounts a recent incident that took place in his neighborhood deli during which an employee frisked Forest Witaker after accusing him of shoplifting. There’s nothing uncommon about stop and frisk in New York City where the deli is located but it’s less common that the person being profiled is a world famous actor. After recognizing Witaker the owner apologized. What Coates picks up on in his piece is the same owner’s claim that, “it was a ‘sincere mistake’ made by a ‘decent man’ who was ‘just doing his job.'” According to the owner, the incident wasn’t the result of racial profiling but was the sort of mistake anyone could have made. We white folks often don’t see prejudice and racialized assumptions at work in these sorts of scenarios because of how we think – or don’t – about racism. Coates writes,
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”
Racism, for many of us, is localized within an individual and an unsavory, morally corrupt individual at that. Certainly not “decent” people like ourselves. Anyone other than a hooded Klan member who is acting prejudicially probably just misspoke. Or is having a bad day. I’m reminded of a anthropologist friend who avoids the word racist in his classes of mostly white students for fear they will tune out, assuming themselves to be beyond such ugly assumptions and behaviors. Coates goes on, nodding toward the slippery and invisible (to some) forms that racism takes today, forms that are no less destructive for their cultural camouflage.
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
On one hand, racism continues to play it’s wicked part within the American story. On the other hand, most of us within the majority culture don’t think we play a part in this story; someone out there may be racist but it’s certainly not me. It’s impossible for both of these to be true.
As a Christian I think about whether American Christians – and I mostly have in mind white American Christians – think any differently about these things than our secular neighbors. Unfortunately, it’s probably a safe assumption that we don’t think differently and more carefully about systemic racism. But it shouldn’t be this way. In fact, there are at least two obvious attributes within Christian belief that can begin forming us into something other than “the good, racist people” of Coates’ op-ed.
First, Christians believe in sin. We really believe in sin, meaning that our rebellion against God plays out in our lives and our neighborhoods; in our hearts and our culture; in the individual and the system that individual functions within. Given the history of our country we shouldn’t be surprised at the ways the sins of racism have been assumed into our cultural assumptions and habits. When we deny the prejudice that flows through the veins of our country and instead limit racial injustice to the occasional despicable individual we betray our too-small view of sin and its prevalence.
Second, Christians believe in grace. We really, really believe in grace. Without grace there is no ground on which the Christian may stand. Our ongoing dependence on God’s grace means that we don’t have to justify ourselves. Specifically, we can readily admit our complicity and corruption within systems and structures that are often in conflict with God’s justice. As a white man who lives by grace, I’m able to acknowledge (when made aware) my blind spots and prejudices. In fact, I need not be surprised by them given the reality of sin in our world. Why wouldn’t I be affected by our injustice world? And why wouldn’t I be glad for every chance to lean again into the grace of God as I repent and am forgiven?
I know firsthand that these two attributes of Christianity are more easily stated than lived. Even so, there seems some reason to hope that the good, racist people Coates has rightly become weary of need not be our default identity.
The New York Times reports today that the over 500 killings in Chicago last year were primarily gang members killing other gang members. The Times frames the story as — surprise! — racism.
In fact racism isn’t mentioned explicitly in the article, the focus instead being on the segregation in our city. But by so quickly and cynically employing that blunt word, Dreher does the thing we white people often do around issues of race: he quickly dismisses the author’s premise as too simplistic and offers instead his own read of the situation. No matter that plenty of smart people have shown the connections between segregation, poverty, and violence in Chicago.
As disappointing as his quick disregard for these connections is his alternative explanation for the violence plaguing predominately African-American neighborhoods. “The problem'” he writes, “is rooted in the breakdown of the family.” Two things are especially bothersome about this explanation, typical among certain commentators and pundits. First: The neighborhoods profiled in the Times piece are filled with families, churches, mosques, block clubs, and other community organizations doing everything possible to protect and empower the family. I meet community leaders and clergy all the time whose social values are at least as conservative as those of Dreher.
Second: Are we to understand that only African-American families are breaking down? Is gun violence so much less in the predominately white Chicago neighborhoods because white people are better at keeping families together? I doubt this is what Dreher has in mind, though I’m not sure how else to interpret his point. Far more relevant to the murder rate are the resources available in the white neighborhoods. These families also experience family turmoil – though external pressures are less than in poor neighborhoods – but have access to the resources that help keep families together.
More could be said about Dreher’s too-simple analysis such as the history that led to our current segregation and the barely visible systems that keep old dividing lines in place. Again, I appreciate much of what Dreher writes and will continue to follow his blog closely while hoping this sort of analysis remains the exception.