Nevada freeloader-rancher Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling happened to say a lot about American racism this week in ways that sometimes require open prejudice to show: we’re nowhere near a post-racial society.
What also is not a surprise is that it took more than a nano-second for some Republicans to realize that they don’t want to be associated with Bundy and that the NBA has been looking the other way on Sterling’s racism for a long time. Cliven Bundy was not a longtime friend-of-the-family for anyone who defended him for days; he was a friend of convenience until it turns out that not only was he a modern equivalent of the Whiskey Rebellion leaders but that he was symbolic of the entire soft underbelly of the Tea Party. On the other hand, Sterling is a known quantity, unless you’re the NBA and don’t want to kick out one of the club.
It’s easy for other Americans to look at both, say good riddance, and be proud that you’re not anything like either. Well, except for having similar biological apparatus and living in the same era and country, and possibly the same gender and skin color. Yes, I’m glad that most Americans are not as ugly as either (and I’m not talking about their looks). We also share the same history as this week’s out-there racists. To deny that common history and cultural baggage is dangerous.
We don’t have to do kneeling penance for our ugly history. We just have to recognize it and watch for where it rears its head, either in the mouth of someone like Bundy or Sterling or in the way the social structure reinvents inequality in every generation.
That reinvention is one of the more difficult bits about history to understand. With the exception of folks like Bundy or Sterling, today’s racism is not generally the same as that experienced when your grandparents were young. It’s definitely not the same as that of our great-great-grandparents’ era. It’s slippery and hard to catch. That’s where Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack essay (1989) is both useful and controversial. She argues not just that society remains uenqual but that there is a psychosocial aspect to living in an unequal society that hides advantages from the advantaged. The first rule of White Club is: do not talk about White Club. But even that rule is never said out loud.
Or not usually, and not these days. Before 1970, you could easily find plenty of people in this country who would be happy to talk about their preferences for White Club (or some variety of it). The elaborate dance around inequality today is a consequence of that changing nature of prejudice. Those who benefited from racism in 1954 could talk openly about it, either arguing in favor of it or arguing against, but it was a recognized fact of life. I don’t think it’s either a surprise or that it should be a taboo topic, but in every generation a large group of Americans have an allergy to approaching some topics openly. I guess that this generation’s taboo topic is institutional racism.
The saddest piece about Bundy or Sterling is going to be the way some news media approach this after they are both marginalized and start to slip away from the headlines. Some news outlets are inevitably going to approach this moment with the huge sigh of relief that Americans are mature enough to turn away from racism these days when it rears its ugly head. Yep, be happy that finally, after knowing full well that racists are talking into microphones, we finally decided to shut off the microphone after a decent interval of complete embarrassment. That’ll be a mighty big arm patting ourselves on the back. We might even get hurt by patting ourselves on the back too vigorously. Maybe it’s a medical condition: white elbow.