The controversy surrounding the remarks of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, are another reminder that racism is still embedded in our nation’s ethos. But unlike the blatant in-your-face sheet-wearing bigots of the past, today’s hate mongers wear fine-tailored suits and contribute large sums of money to the very organizations they paternalistically support with their ill-gotten largesse.
In this age of electronic marvels, privacy is becoming technologically obsolete. Off-handed indiscretions that reveal deep-rooted prejudices about people of color are broadcast throughout the cybersphere for all to see and hear. What is shocking about the public’s reaction to Sterling’s comments is the feigned disgust, indignation and revulsion about the incident, despite abundant information confirming the persistence of racism in our country.
The day after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, a sign appeared in a neighbor’s yard — “God help us.” The implications of this statement reflect the accumulated prejudice against people of color going back hundreds of years, before slavery, to the very foundation of Western thought about the rationalization for imperialism and colonization. To understand the persistence of racism in our society, we must understand the motivation for its existence.
As Western travelers began to encounter indigenous people in the 1400s and 1500s, they relied on their narrow unscientific perception of reality to explain differences they observed in appearance and culture. Having an ethnocentric bias about their supposedly superior morals and physiognomy, and in need of a justification for pillaging and plundering the land of others, they conceived a value system that placed themselves on the top and nonwhite indigenous people beneath them. From this perspective arose beliefs and behaviors that characterized nonwhites as inferior, childlike, and simian. These beliefs led to the domination and exploitation of indigenous people by Westerners throughout Asia, Africa, and North, Central and South America.
The legacy of racist beliefs is difficult to extinguish because it permeates our culture. It is reinforced through what we see and hear in the mass media and what our children learn in Eurocentric texts and lessons in school. It is reflected in public opinion polls that routinely show opposite perceptions about fairness and equity between black and white respondents. It is revealed in a ceaseless line of corporate settlements with the U.S. Office of Equal Opportunity reaching into tens of millions of dollars for racial improprieties. And it sheds its genteel façade on the Internet where anonymous white bigots abuse, deride and blame people of color for their own misfortune.
It is estimated that there are over 60,000 hate websites on the World Wide Web. Florida has the distinction of being home to the first and largest of these, Stormfront. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are over 1,000 hate groups in the United States, with Florida’s 58 ranking second only to California’s 77. Even more alarming has been the growth of anti-government patriot groups since Obama’s election — an increase of 813 percent since he took office in 2008.
America’s sordid racial past should not preclude a more equitable and sustainable future. Our very existence depends on the fair and impartial treatment of the diverse groups that we will rely on.
In 30 years, one of every three people in this country will be Latino, and in 40 years whites will become a minority. Giving people of color and other diverse marginalized groups, e.g. LGBT, Muslims and other religious minorities, opportunities to achieve the “American Dream” is not only fair but essential for our future. We must recognize and expose prejudiced paternalism on the playing field, basketball court, in the boardroom and the classroom. Only then can the promise of America “with liberty and justice for all” become reality.
H. Roy Kaplan, Ph.D., was the executive director of The National Conference of Christians and Jews for Tampa Bay. He is the author of “The Myth of Post-Racial America.” His latest book, “Understanding Conflict and Change in a Multicultural World,” will be out shortly.