The only thing surprising in the recent controversy over offensive, racist comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is that anyone is surprised. From NBA officials to corporate sponsors, people are shocked — just shocked — that there are racists among us.
It may be comforting to pretend that America’s race problems are finished and the occasional publicly exposed bigot is an aberration, but it’s not true. It’s not just that famous people, from Paris Hilton to assorted members of Congress, keep getting caught saying overtly racist things. Our nation’s history is fraught with racial baggage, from slavery to Jim Crow segregation to the ethnic cleansing (yes, let’s call it what it was) that removed American Indians from nearly all of their land. It’s simply not realistic to think we’ve shed all that baggage in the few decades since civil rights laws were passed.
And the evidence is overwhelming that we haven’t. An October 2012 Associated Press poll found that a majority of Americans "now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not." AP found that 51 percent of Americans expressed "explicit anti-black attitudes," while a parallel survey the year before found 52 percent of non-Hispanic whites expressed explicit anti-Hispanic sentiments. In both surveys, when researchers probed for implicit prejudice, the numbers for bigoted attitudes rose by several percentage points.
This isn’t shocking. Old attitudes die slowly. That’s just human nature.
But it’s disturbing that the U.S. Supreme Court seems to be going out of its way to ignore that reality.
In his recent majority opinion upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in higher education, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "Government action that classifies individuals on the basis of race is inherently suspect and carries the danger of perpetuating the very racial divisions the polity seeks to transcend." In Kennedy’s world, those anti-black attitudes that AP uncovered and that Sterling expressed so crudely either don’t exist or would go away if we would only abandon affirmative action.
A similar sort of willful amnesia marked last year’s Supreme Court ruling eviscerating the Voting Rights Act. Amazingly, Chief Justice John Roberts used the law’s success to argue that it is no longer needed, writing, "There is no denying ... that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions." He wrote this even as states were adopting voter ID laws that disproportionately hurt people of color and the poor, ostensibly to solve a "voter fraud" problem whose existence has never been documented.
Pretending that America’s ugly history of racial discrimination is over and done with is the best way to guarantee that discrimination and inequality will continue. Donald Sterling has made it impossible to keep up this pretense, however. People in power, including the justices of the Supreme Court, need to discard this comfortable pretense now.
Orson Aguilar is executive director of the Greenlining Institute and Bruce Mirken is the organization’s media relations director. They wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues
— McClatchy Tribune News Services