It’s easy to make fun of or direct outrage toward ignorant racists such as Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling. They are the two figures who in recent days have made comments that are almost a caricature of racist attitudes. What is more important is to recognize that the vile flower of their bigotry grows from a manure pile that feeds racism far more widely than these two men, even through the great victories that have been won in civil rights, even after the nation has elected a black president.
Cliven Bundy is the Nevada rancher who became a hero for Republicans because he had been refusing to pay the fees he owed for grazing his cattle on federal land. Then he decided to share his views about black Americans and how they might have been better off under slavery.
Donald Sterling is the 80-year-old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, an NBA team, who was allegedly recorded telling his girlfriend she shouldn’t associate in public with black people, even Magic Johnson, the beloved former NBA star. As offensive as his attitudes about African-Americans were, the nasty way he was talking to his much younger girlfriend should not be overlooked. You must be stupid, he told her, for not sharing his views.
Of course, maybe she’s in it because she loves him, rather than because he is a billionaire. That his girlfriend is mixed race — African-American and Mexican — made his comments even more bizarre. She is apparently stupid, in his view, because she doesn’t appreciate the stigma that would come from associating with other black people.
Bundy’s words purvey the familiar myths used through the years to make white people feel better about the oppression they were inflicting on black people. The image of happy black folks working happily on the white man’s plantation is a fallacy that, given a minimum of thought, doesn’t even make sense. But it was a myth that endured into the 20th century, finding expression in popular culture through the novel and movie of “Gone With the Wind,” among other relics. It helped shift the blame for the Civil War to the Yankees, who came south to interfere with the Southern way of life. It’s the sort of attitude that persisted in the minds of people who needed to perpetuate the idea of The Other, someone else whom it was easy to blame.
These ideas become particularly insidious when they latch onto people with wealth or power. Sterling is a good example of a powerful person whose benighted ideas can do widespread harm. He is a real estate mogul who has been the subject of lawsuits because of racial discrimination in the renting of his properties. He’s not a harmless redneck. He’s a guy who can affect people’s lives through his business practices. Multiply him by the number of other people in business and politics who share his hostile attitudes, and you can see how racism continues to infect the nation.
These are realities that the present Supreme Court seems blissfully unaware of. In recent cases, it has reversed civil rights legislation designed to thwart racism as it affects voting and college admissions. The court’s attitude is that the civil rights battles have been won and so no special measures must be kept in place to curb racism. All that bigotry is a thing of the past, according to the court, until there is evidence to the contrary.
It’s a view of the law ridiculed by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said it made no sense to take down your umbrella in a rain storm because you are dry. Nevertheless, the court has been peeling away the very laws that have been combating racism, it seems, because of the laws’ success.
The reason for the laws is made evident every time bigots such as Sterling and Bundy open their mouths. We know they are not alone and that the way to contain the spread of their poison is through awareness, vigilance and a continuing political and legal struggle.
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