On the day I ran in my town’s “Race Against Racism”, the big sports news was that Los Angeles Clippers’ team owner Donald Sterling chastised his girlfriend for hanging out with African-Americans. To him, this was embarrassing. To paraphrase his comments, "fine, hang out with them in private, but don't do it in public, people will talk." From an eighty-one year old rich, white dude, this probably shouldn’t be all that surprising. Undeniably, this attitude was common a half a century ago. Walk into any affluent country club in the United States and my guess is you will be able to find at least one racist octogenarian.
I have always considered racism as a crime of ignorance. To
believe that a group of people, a specific race, a descendant of a different
national or cultural origin, is inferior, I’ve assumed the racist must have
limited encounters with people from the group he is stereotyping. This isn't
the case with Sterling. He is constantly surrounded by African-Americans. They
are his employees, his critics, his marketers, his peer-group. Sterling is
surrounded by some of the smartest, most successful, accomplished
African-Americans in the country. Even his girlfriend, the recipient of his
racist remarks, is of African-American descent.
In this case, Sterling simply seems to be a jerk. Full of hate. I'd
like to think this is a generational problem. A point of view that will
eventually die-out with the handful of older people still harboring racist
view-points, but I know this isn't true. I went to college in Lynchburg, VA in
the 1980s. Not exactly the deep-south, but southern enough, remote enough to
seem that way. Strong racism was prevalent. At parties within the community, I
continually met racist people. I met Klan members. I met a guy my age who tried
to argue that the downfall of slavery was unfair to white people
–slave-ownership was our God-given right.
But it isn't just a southern problem either. A large portion of
the students at my school came from northern states. New York, New Jersey,
Connecticut. There was heavy recruitment from that region. I found that many of
these people were just as racist as the folks from Lynchburg. The only
difference is they were less public about it. While growing up in the suburbs
of Washington, DC, I didn't realize these attitudes still existed. My high
school had a small population of African-Americans, but no one I knew treated
them differently from anyone else.
Since leaving my naïve, sheltered upbringing, I've learned that
racism is still prevalent throughout the country, the world. In this country,
religious intolerance is on the rise. Just this morning, I read a quote from
popular tea-party pol, Sarah Palin: “Waterboarding is how we baptize
terrorists.” The queen of clever language. Is she saying that we will not
coddle terrorists, or is she saying that we intend to torture people into
becoming Christian? I’d like to put forth the reminder that not all terrorist
organizations are non-Christians. Our homegrown terrorist group, the KKK,
morphed into a Protestant organization during the 1900s. Persecuting, terrorizing,
attacking those who were Catholic, Jewish, immigrant or black.
The world is growing smaller. We are more interconnected than ever
before. We interact on social media with people from all cultures, people
around the world. Yet many are still holding on to their old stereotypes.
Donald Sterling is entitled to his beliefs, but he is also entitled to the
fire-storm that has flown his way. Only by holding accountable those who spout
bigoted, narrow views, will society continue to make strides against prejudice.
There can be no “they”, no “them”. Each individual must be judged on his or her
own merit. When this is ignored, racism persists. We each have a responsibility
to speak out against bigotry. To challenge those who judge without basis. This
is true for Donald Sterling, for Sarah Palin, the guy at the country club, the
guy down the street.