Confronting the Structures of Race

by Linda Bowen posted 12/9/2015 11:41:35 AM
During the past months the country has been witness to several events that illuminate our national relationship with race and power under a neoliberal frame. A series of racist remarks dominated the public's attention even as a history of racist actions that affected the lives of many poor people were barely noted. Likewise, a monumental decision by the Supreme Court that challenges the fate of potentially millions of Americans as they seek higher education was pushed to the side.

When LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, rancher Cliven Bundy and Wolfeboro, NH mayor Robert Copeland voiced openly racist remarks, many were outraged, as they have been when similar instances of individual racism were brought into public view.

The reaction to each of these was swift and increasingly predictable. Condemnatory statements via social and traditional media by celebrities, politicians and ordinary citizens lit up the airwaves. Offenders were publicly penalized. After an outcry by some of its most prominent and revered players – and perhaps more importantly, the response of advertising sponsors, the NBA chose to enforce its harshest punishment – banning Sterling for life and forcing the sale of the team – though this will most likely result in a windfall for Sterling. In New Hampshire, citizens mobilized to demand the resignation of Copeland and even conservatives and Tea Party activists abandoned Mr. Bundy following his tirade. That outrage continued our national debate about the state of racism in America, where the general public no longer condones blatantly racist statements and insists on individual racists to be held accountable , but has little tolerance for the notion that individual racist remarks are borne from the embedded societal structures. It is as though we feel that in our “post racial” society, we have done what we need to do to hold the country accountable for racism, so all that remains is to somehow punish individual racists for their bad behavior.

Sterling’s case is an interesting illustration of how even individual racist acts garner different types of public attention. During the public outcry over Sterling’s remarks about NBA players, numerous cases were revealed in which Mr. Sterling was accused of racial discrimination in his real estate empire. In 2003 a group of tenants and the nonprofit Housing Rights Center filed a federal lawsuit against Sterling accusing him of discriminatory housing practices, .including wrongful eviction and derogatory comments made about Black and Latino tenants. The case was dismissed after Sterling agreed to pay nearly $5 million in legal costs. In 2006 another case was brought against him for refusing to rent to African-American tenants in his Beverley Hills apartments and other discriminatory practices. Housing discrimination remains a major structural force affecting life outcomes for racial minorities. These cases were not reported widely because those affected had little power or voice to draw attention to their case and even when it was brought to light, the public expressed little concern.

Even when the victims of Sterling’s earlier racism were prominent figures, his actions were not condemned by the NBA or the general public . In 2009, Elgin Baylor (an 11-time NBA all-star and general manager of the Clippers from 1986-2008) filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Sterling. The details of this case brought to light the “plantation mentality” that Sterling sought to maintain within the Clippers, with a ‘White Southerner coaching a bunch of poor black boys”. Baylor also contended that his salary never rose above $350,000 which was a fraction of what general managers were being paid at other NBA teams. This case received some press at the time, but was ultimately dismissed. The fact that the NBA did not intervene in Baylor’s defense, or in the housing suits, could be evidence that structural racism might exist in the NBA. If Sterling’s latest remarks had not been damaging to the NBA’s bottom line, would there have been the same response by the NBA?

Here is the takeaway from these events and the public response to them. On the surface our country does not condone racism, but little is being done to address structural racism. Over the last year, the Supreme Court has steadily pushed back against the progressive gains of the 1960s and 70s. Last summer, there was the decision to set back core protections from the Voting Rights Act (which was immediately embraced as an opportunity by some states to enact more strict voting legislation as in North Carolina and Texas). This systemic disenfranchisement is growing, with 33 states having introduced some new restrictive voting measures in 2013 alone. Most recently the Supreme Court supported Michigan’s ban on the use of affirmative action policies at its state universities. The latest reports from the Department of Education reveal that schools remain segregated, and in some areas are in fact more segregated than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

There is a lack of outrage for this systemic pushback against progress for racial equality and justice, perhaps because it is easier to be outraged by individuals who we can distance ourselves from. Yet there must be a way to shift the well-intentioned horror and disgust at the racist comments of individuals onto the actual policies and values that have structuralized racism into our institutions. As Sotomayor stated in her dissent, the court, "ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter."
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Blog Archives

Confronting the Structures of Race
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