The trouble with Donald Sterling is that he’s an…well, for the sake of public consumption, let’s just say that he’s a jerk. A racist jerk who said appalling things. I hope his girlfriend dumps him. But the question is what his jerkiness means to those of us who have the good fortune not to be dating him. After all, he, like all the rest of us in the United States, is entitled to freedom of speech. If he wants to be a jerk on his own time, he has the right.
Of course, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. Freedom of speech means that the police can’t come and arrest him for being a jerk. But it turns out that the NBA is entitled to suspend and fine him, the players on the team he owns are entitled to protest his words, his friends are free to avoid being seen with him in public and those of us in the blogosphere are entitled to call him a racist jerk. Racist jerk.
The real trouble with Donald Sterling only comes when those of us who are publicly appalled by his words think that sanctioning his offensive language has anything significant to do with combatting racism. Yes, Donald Sterling is a racist jerk. So is Cliven Bundy. But in the time that we’ve been filling the interwebs with commentary on what racist jerks they are, the real racism has been flowing on with the minimum of discussion. The real racism is happening as the Supreme Court disassembles the Voting Rights Act on the pretext that we’re over the need for all that. While the poverty rate in the US for African Americans and Hispanics is nearly three times that of Whites. While the criminal justice system unfairly targets people of color. While students of color are disproportionally likely to be suspended from school, and to attend schools where they lack access to higher math and science classes and experienced teachers. And on and on.
Sure. It’s important to call out the racist jerks, for people to hear that that kind of racial hostility is not OK. But the problem comes when we assume that dealing with racial hostility, with offensive remarks, means that we have dealt with racism. Racial hostility and racism are not the same thing. If someone has been rude to you because of your race or ethnicity, whatever that might be, you have experienced racial hostility—prejudice. But racism is a whole complex interwoven system of privilege and oppression that has very little to do with hostility and very much to do with power and privilege. So addressing the hostility is all very well and good, but let’s not pretend that we’re seriously dealing with racism. Systems of oppression need to be combatted by systems of justice. Like, say, the Supreme Court of the United States. That’s something worth talking about.