The racist words of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling that resulted in him getting a lifetime ban from the NBA and the racist judgments of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy are already in our culture's rear view mirror. The fact that our nation has basically already moved on says a lot about our fickle media culture and even more about our inability to recognize racism in our midst. The thing about Sterling that let's us move on so quickly is how blatant his racism was on the tape made by his bi-racial mistress, similarly Bundy's declarations that the "negroes" were "better off as slaves" are so straightforwardly bigoted that they are astounding. Rarely does it happen that the majority of our culture can recognize and summarily reject racism, because rarely is it so obvious. Bundy's and Sterling's words seem to belong to another era when rich white men could get away with saying such things. Today their racism must be masked in howls of outrage over "political correctness" or a Supreme Court ruling that naively declares we are in a post-racial America. Racism still is intertwined in our culture in ways that are institutional and systemic--forms of racism that are far more difficult to recognize than are the racist words of Sterling and Bundy.
Nehiti Coates, writing in The Atlantic,said it well, "The problem with Cliven Bundy isn't that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt."
The NBA knew about Sterling's racism for years and years, but it did nothing. It's current abhorrence of Sterling's words seems more to do with the fact that he was stupid enough to get caught saying them. Again, Coates from The Atlantic:
"Like Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling confirms our comfortable view of racists. Donald Sterling is a "bad person." He's mean to women. He carouses with prostitutes.He uses the word "nigger." He fits our idea of what an actual racist must look like: snarling, villainous, immoral, ignorant, gauche. The actual racism that Sterling long practiced, that this society has long practiced (and is still practicing) must attract significantly less note. That is because to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves."
Similarly, the TV and radio talk show hosts along with the bloggers on the internet were quick to anoint Bundy as a hero fighting against the tyranny of the federal government, yet even more quickly they fled from him and changed the subject when he was stupid enough to hold a press conference and declare his racist ideology. Really? None of these media people knew he was a racist beforehand? Really?
The more "elegant" form of racism that is institutional, systemic and seemingly omnipresent is better illustrated by the essay published by Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang. Fortgang became a viral sensation after he wrote his piece defending himself from fellow students who ask him to "check your privilege" just because he is white and male. He feels that his own hard work and that of his family--including his own Holocaust survivor grandparents--is dismissed on account of his gender and ethnicity.
What the college freshman's essay reveals is his lack of understanding of the pervasiveness of racism and sexism in our culture. Women continue to earn significantly less than men for the same positions, and they make up small minorities of leadership positions in most major professions. There are certainly exceptions, but they remain exceptions. Similarly, African Americans have worse options for employment and housing and are incarcerated at greater numbers than whites--even if they are in the same economic class!
One of Fortgang's classmates at Princeton, Briana Payton, who is African American and female, wrote an excellent response to Fortgang. She notes, "Fortgang's privilege is, in essence, the inability to not see [racism and sexism] as problematic because it doesn't affect him." She goes on to address Fortgang's false claim that we live in a meritocracy where everyone starts from the same place and social conditions: "No one is saying Fortgang did not sow seeds, but checking his privilege is just acknowledging that the ground he tilled was more fertile than the ground others tilled. They could have spent the same amount of time in the hot sun, watering these seeds, but Fortgang might still reap better results because of certain advantages. For example, he says his value of education is a privilege, and it might be. However, his African American counterpart in an underfunded, under-sourced school with the same value of education and work ethic may not be afforded the same opportunities at the end of his high school career. Ultimately, success is when hard work meets opportunity."
What makes Payton's argument more credible is that she acknowledges her own privileges--coming from an intact family and the upper middle class. If only Fortgang--and so, so many other whites could acknowledge their privileges. What Fortgang and those who share his beliefs refuse to understand is that he does not face the same suspicion based solely upon his skin color from police, store clerks, teachers and jurors that an African American faces. The list is long of African Americans who have overcome systemic and institutionalized racism, but that is a credit to their hard work and determination rather than because they started from the same place as their White counterparts. In a similar manner, gender, class and sexual orientation among others each bring with them subtle yet powerful daily discriminations and "micro-aggressions."
A Christian response to the "elegant" institutionalized and systemic racism of our culture begins with White Christians coming clean about their own racism and repenting from it. The next steps involve Christians working with people of all faiths and those of none to dismantle the unrecognized ways racism and sexism (and classism, and heterosexism and. . . ) continue to hold sway. The few fools like Bundy and Sterling who wear their true views on their sleeves for all the world to see are shrinking in number each day. We really don't have the luxury anymore of people being blatant about their discrimination. Our culture's system of oppression is much more difficult to acknowledge and reject. The Church should be the place where people can achieve the humility necessary to repent and work for change; it's too bad it often is the last bastion of discrimination.
Grace and Peace,