You Might Want to Count Again
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling were recently in the news for making what were widely viewed as racist statements. Now that the dust has settled a little on both of them, I wanted to take a look at each one. Many people tend to see them as equivalent and label both racists. Others argue that label is misapplied. While both may indeed be racists, there are enough differences and similarities between them to make any judgment about them a little more complicated than a simple thumbs down.
Cliven Bundy took to musing about “the Negro” at a press conference following a stand-down between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and his followers over Bundy’s right to graze his cattle on federal lands. As first reported by the New York Times, Bundy lamented poor blacks on government support for lacking cultural and moral values. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. 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.”
Embattled Nevada rancher Cliven
Bundy (left) and Los Angeles
Clippers owner Donald Sterling (right)
Donald Sterling berated his girlfriend, who describes herself as a mixture of black and Mexican, for publicly associating with black professional basketball players. As first reported by TMZ Sports, Sterling criticizes the young woman for lack of pride. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people . . . You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it . . . and not to bring them to my games.”
There is no doubt Bundy and Sterling have certain things in common. Both are self-promoters who like to hear themselves talk. Both are less than sterling characters. Bundy has a long history of legal run-ins with the government over his refusal to pay for grazing rights. He categorically denies the legitimacy of the federal government and U.S. Constitution, even when his supporters were pushing him as a champion of the First and Second Amendments. Sterling has a string of past lawsuits in which he is accused of being a slumlord. He has carried on an extramarital affair for years while separated from his wife. Both men are blunt-spoken and cantankerous.
Yet there are differences between their cases. Bundy meant for his comments to be placed in the public domain, while Sterling intended his rant to be private. Both men expressed traditional views of racism – things were better in the old days when blacks and whites were more segregated. Yet Sterling’s desire for separation is obviously deliberate while Bundy’s skirts the line of the subconscious.
Although Bundy is the one who mention the relative “benefits” of slavery, it is really Sterling who exhibits a classic plantation mentality. Bundy wants to see African Americans as self-reliant as he imagines himself to be. Sterling congratulates himself on his largess toward his black players and denigrates what he perceives as their lack of gratitude. Bundy takes a factual observation – that social welfare program have not broken the cycle of poverty experienced by many minorities – and conflates that with the “values” instilled by slavery. Sterling stresses the importance of showing a politically correct face in public by lying.
Columnist Chris Jepson of the Seminole Voice candidly differentiates the two men. He argues that Bundy is “unbelievably ignorant,” while Sterling is “the height of hypocrisy.” He feels Sterling’s Jewish ancestry particularly places him in a position of knowing better “that one’s ethnicity, race or religion is no justification for bigotry.”
Complicating all this is the ever-evolving idea of a “post-racial America,” a meme that has gained credence in conservative circles since the election of a black President. Republicans and others needed to be able to criticize Barack Obama without immediately opening themselves up to charges of racism. It began the day after Obama’s election in 2008, when conservative black columnist Shelby Steele wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times that asked, “Doesn't a black in the White House put the lie to both black inferiority and white racism? Doesn't it imply a ‘post-racial’ America?”
Conservatives have since taken this meme beyond the defensive and gone on the offensive. It used to be that a racist was someone who hated another person simply because of their race. That idea has been twisted to redefine a racist as anyone who first introduces a racial aspect into another’s hate speech or action. Race, ethnicity, and religion might cause people to form different ideologies and philosophies but the disagreements are now between “the content of our characters” rather than “the color of our skins.” In this post-racial America, all hatred is reduced to legitimate differences of opinion.
There has been some pushback on this from the left. African-American columnist Mary Curtis writes in the Washington Post, “Whenever the weary chide me at a mere mention of the lingering legacy of racism, I tell them the truth – I never think about race unless I’m reminded of it . . . and I’m reminded of it all the time.” Ditto for liberal columnist Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker. “Bundy and Sterling represent an ugly corner of contemporary American life, but it is one that is entirely invisible in recent Supreme Court rulings. In the Roberts Court, there are no Bundys and Sterlings; the real targets of the conservative majority are those who've spent their lives fighting the Bundys and Sterlings of the world.”
However, their counter-attack is counter-counter-attacked by Toobin’s almost namesake, Jonathan Tobin in Commentary magazine. “Surely even Toobin has noticed . . . 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.”
Finally, Andrew Napolitano, a former judge and FOX News analyst, notes in a Washington Times op/ed piece that, despicable as they may be, Bundy’s and Sterling’s words never translated into actions. Bundy is not donning a white hood and riding with the Ku Klux Klan. There is nothing to indicate Sterling pays talented black players any less than he does white players. “Racially hateful speech is protected from government interference by the First Amendment.”
In this sense, labeling Bundy and Sterling as racists may well be accurate but less than significant. There is little doubt that ignorance is entirely capable of making the jump to hatred and racism. However, some seem too quick to make that link while others refuse to concede such a link can exist. How many racists we see when we look at figures like Bundy and Sterling probably says more about each of our places in a supposed “post-racial America” than anything else.