Donald Sterling comments: Is racism hiding in plain sight?

Alleged comments by Donald Sterling and musings by rancher Cliven Bundy suggest that deep-seated racial prejudice remains more prevalent than many believe, some sociologists say.

Danny Moloshok/AP
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA basketball game between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in Los Angeles on last month.

The ongoing debate about race in America has been jolted by the alleged racist comments by Donald Sterling, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers for more than 30 years, and the musings about the cultural characteristics of “the Negro” by Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy.

The comments were made in very different contexts and expressed very different types of views.

Mr. Sterling, a high-profile real estate magnate, allegedly chastised a former mistress for appearing in public with black people, specifically former NBA superstar Magic Johnson. Mr. Bundy, who became a hero of conservative state’s rights advocates after standing up to agents trying to enforce federal grazing laws, never expressed dislike or contempt for other races, but espoused an ideology of racial supremacy that he apparently thought unremarkable.

For many who study racial attitudes, such views – from rank racial hatred to casual assumptions of white supremacy – may lurk more commonly than assumed. They suggest that the racism of today has been papered over by how Americans talk about race in public, which squares neither with many people's private beliefs nor with the realities on the ground.

“We are now living in a society where there is a huge gap between what people say publicly about race, and what they say when they think they are among trusted friends,” says Mark Naison, the chair of African-American studies at Fordham University in New York. “This allows us to think we have placed race behind us even though there are deep underlying tensions.”

“It also allows us to deny that racial disparities in income, wealth, life expectancy, education, and rates of incarceration, have anything to do with racism,” continues Mr. Naison. “Donald Sterling's comments remind us that this conclusion may be premature.”

Opinion polls consistently show white Americans think more progress has been made against racism than do black Americans. That perception gap has played out throughout society, even echoing into the US Supreme Court.

In gutting the landmark Voting Rights Act in 2012, a 5-to-4 majority of justices essentially decided that attitudes toward race have improved significantly. “Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote.

But last week, Justice Sonia Sotomayor mounted a full-scale intellectual assault on her colleagues’ thinking that race no longer matters as it once did, calling it “out of touch with reality.”

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination,” Justice Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion to the court's 6-to-2 decision upholding a Michigan ban on affirmative action. “[W]e 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.”

Some sociologists agree that the progress of recent decades has been largely superficial.

“I think the progress we’ve made is really in rhetoric only,” says Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “You can talk about abstract legal theory all you want, but Americans live in a real world – and we live in segregated neighborhoods, in neighborhoods where some schools are very high performing and some are not, with some populations that are more likely to be stopped by police while some aren’t.”

Professor Gallagher is currently doing research about racial attitudes among whites in poor but economically-changing neighborhoods. “Once the tape recorders are running, and once we’re into the conversation for 30 minutes and people start to let down their guard a little bit, they say what they really believe.”

“People use proxy words, things that are either dog whistles or euphemisms when talking about other races,” he says.

In March, a number of Democrats accused Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin of using such racially-charged “dog whistles” when he said poverty was caused by “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work” – a remark which has since been compared to Mr. Bundy’s views.

Representative Ryan denies he used this as a proxy for blaming poverty on race, and he is set to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus this week to discuss his comments. Rep. Barbara Lee of California has called them “a thinly veiled racial attack.”

But the furor surrounding Sterling and Bundy is raising questions about whether racial prejudices are still present but simply bubbling beneath the surface.  

“We thought we had moved beyond that, but I think now that people just know what’s appropriate to say in public spaces,” says Gallagher. “But then you have race in the way that people really live their lives when there is no tape recorder, when they believe they are ensconced in the safety of being around like-minded people that look like themselves – then you have people speaking honestly.”

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