When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver gave Donald Sterling the maximum punishment for his racist rant, Middle America breathed a sigh of relief. Justice has been served, the evil people have been eliminated, and racism has been vanquished. The reality is that Sterling is simply a high profile, wealthy symptom of an intrinsic problem with our individualistic society: entrenched racism.
When Americans heard Sterling try to convince his mistress not to publicize her dalliances with the darker men, we were rightly appalled that a man in this day and age could think such things. Wouldn’t it be great if we felt similarly about the everyday racism that permeates our culture? Some people argue that America is “post-racial,” meaning that race is no longer a factor for consideration in our society. Not surprisingly, the proponents of such a model are typically white (and often male).
Why do I say this is not surprising? Because even though a majority of Caucasian Americans are not screaming hate-filled statements, they are unaware of the realities facing people of color in this country, the economic conditions that preserve their second-class roles, legal conditions that silence their voices in government, and social conditions that brand them as violent, stupid, lazy and maladjusted before they can prove otherwise. While we have eliminated slavery, Jim Crow laws and even interracial marriage restrictions, we have not extinguished racism.
Racism is challenging the credibility of our first black president, with adequate proof of his citizenship, well into his second term. Racism is accepting Sen. Ted Cruz, who was born on foreign soil to a citizen of Cuba, but accusing Barack Obama of being a foreigner. Racism is telling the Indian-American Miss America to go back to her home country despite the fact that she holds a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science and was born in New York. The color of her skin is enough to summon kneejerk repulsion. Racism is the City of New York defending a stop and frisk policy where nine in 10 of the people stopped were people of color (even though they only account for half of the city’s population). That same stop and frisk policy has been shown to be effective only 12 percent of the time. But racism does not have to be so obvious.
Racism is the gap between the average wages of Caucasian and African-American families. Racism is the myth that government subsidies like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) are only helping people of color. Racism is denying home loans to people of color to prevent them from living in expensive neighborhoods (called red lining). Simultaneously, racism is white people moving into neighborhoods formerly dominated by people of color and making them too expensive for their original residents (called gentrification).
Why are we so quick to denounce the man who says blatantly racist statements but are so lethargic in dealing with the racism that happens every day? Quite honestly, who has the time? In a struggling economy, with troubling world events and with all the TV shows we’re committed to watching, who has the mental energy to deal with yet another problem? This attitude, combined with a media system that is more interested in celebrity lifestyles than national issues, creates the cultural lethargy that has stymied any significant social policies to address racism in the past 40 years.
In his recent Time op-ed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar points out that Donald Sterling’s racism has been staring America in the face since at least 2006, when the Department of Justice sued him for his race-based housing discrimination. While it is fun and trendy to decry racism when someone is foolish enough to say what Sterling did, this social phenomenon is not a passing fad. As Wendell Phillips noted when speaking to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” It must be the job of the media, the governing powers and the American people to root out racism, not for the sake of people of color, but for the integrity of this country. Our ancestors fought for our freedom, not for the exercise of a tyrannical minority, but for the practice of a consenting majority. We must eliminate racism not just in rhetoric, but also in practice.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.