No matter how far we think we’ve come as a country in our quest to eradicate discrimination, along comes some high-profile buffoon to remind us we’re not quite there yet.
And oddly enough, that’s a good thing.
The latest reminder that we still have a problem with discrimination in this country comes courtesy of the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling.
Sterling was recorded chastising his mistress for posting a photo of herself on Instagram with basketball legend Magic Johnson.
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” the man identified as Sterling said, later in the conversation adding, “You can sleep with them, you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that and not to bring them to my games.”
The comments have brought almost universal outrage. Again, that’s a good thing.
It’s easy to get complacent about race relations by celebrating our accomplishments. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s forced our nation to address discriminatory practices. We now celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday.
Major League Baseball honors Jackie Robinson every spring by having every player wear his number 42 for one game. We elected a black man president of the United States, then re-elected him four years later.
And each time a high-profile bigot, particularly someone from the sports world, shows his or her colors, it seems the national outrage becomes louder and more widespread.
In 1987, Los Angeles Dodgers Vice President Al Campanis was fired after saying in a national television interview that blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or general manager.” A year later, CBS fired announcer Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder for saying that blacks were “bred” to be better athletes.
In 1996, Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott had had a long history of derogatory comments against blacks, gays, Jews and Asians, but gave up control of the team only after being threatened with a one-year suspension over comments that included praising Hitler.
Sterling’s punishment from the NBA on Tuesday was swift and strong — a lifetime ban and a $2.5 million fine, plus a recommendation that he be compelled to sell the team. If we’re to show we’ve learned anything from those previous incidents, the punishments for new ones can’t be a slap on the wrist.
Our rising intolerance for intolerance does demonstrate progress. But it also reminds us that the bigots among us still have a voice and an audience, examples of which can be found everywhere.
To this day, blacks are still far more likely than whites in this country to be arrested for drug-related offenses, more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be detained while facing a felony trial, and more likely to receive longer prison sentences for the same offenses.
In a 2012 poll, 51 percent of Americans expressed anti-black sentiments, which, remarkably, is up 3 percent from a poll conducted in 2008. If you Google the term, “racist jokes,” you get nearly 69 million hits.
And blacks aren’t the only people who continue to suffer discrimination in this country. Despite progress in gender equality, only 17 of the 50 states allow same-sex marriage. And despite getting the right to vote 92 years ago, women continue to lag behind men in advancement and pay in the workplace, just to name one area.
But awareness and outrage is only the first step toward bringing discrimination to an end. Teaching our children tolerance at home and in school is one way to discourage the next generation of racists. Eliminating practices that place minorities in situations that make them vulnerable to criminal behavior, discrimination in the court system, and poverty is another step. Speaking out against and ending discriminatory practices like police stop-and-frisk policies and spying on Muslim communities is yet another.
One of our Twitter followers told us that this incident will all blow over in a week, a la Paula Deen. Let’s hope not. The Donald Sterlings of this world do us a favor, by startling us into facing our continuing racist practices.
They also remind us how much more still needs to be done.