So a number of students, media members, and colleagues have been asking this afternoon what I think of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s lifetime ban of Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling following the release of racist comments apparently directed at his mixed-race mistress. (Silver says the league will also fine Sterling $2.5 million and do “everything in his power” to force Sterling to sell the franchise.) I guess I’m glad that the league came down hard and did so quickly. Sterling’s most recent comments are obviously just the tip of the iceberg—his whole history of racist attitudes and behaviors, and the fact that he had the wealth and power to actually act upon these views reminds of the familiar definition of racism: prejudice + power. I still have no idea how this guy was set to receive a Lifetime Achievement award (was it his second?) from the NAACP in LA.
But I will also say that I am worried that this quick and definitive resolution may not be the best thing for our collective understanding of American racism, racial injustice, and race relations. This, because I think the particulars of this case–both the old fashioned prejudice and bigotry of Sterling’s comments and that it has unfolded in an extremely unusual, racially glorified arena –can distract us from the deeper realities and problems of race and racism in contemporary America: the subtler kinds of stereotypes and obfuscating ideologies that still circulate in and through popular cultural practices such as basketball, for example, or the bigger, structural issues of discrimination, segregation, and inequity that most African Americans and other people of color live with everyday. These are still all around us–and quick and easy solutions to the most obvious and extreme forms of prejudice in the completely atypical arena of professional basketball don’t help us get there. This is the danger of playing out our racial dramas and debates in and though popular cultural forms such as sport (much as I have made a bit of a career analyzing such incidents and exchanges).
This isn’t just me. I’ve been gratified to see sociologists from all over the country writing about this–and in fact using this incident in the world of sport to call attention to the larger, more complicated dynamics of race and racism that sit just beyond the view of the sports commentators and usual pundit discussion and outrage. One of my current favorites–I handed it out in my sport and society class this morning– is Joyce Bell and Wendy Leo Moore’s commentary last night in Racism Review (and this isn’t just because both of them were students of mine once upon a time). I mean, I think the title alone should lead you to click on the link and see what I mean: “Donald Sterling is ‘a Racist:’ Feel Better Now?”
Another came from Max Fitzpatrick, a sociology instructor at Central New Mexico Community College. He sent it to us here at TSP directly, so I’m going to post it directly below. What I love about Fitzpatrick’s take is his use of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim to frame his basic, sociological points about not losing sight of the racial forest in the popular cultural trees. And let me just say that as someone who is teaching Intro to Sociology right now (perhaps Max F. is too?), I think is a great way to remind my students of the application and value of the classics for today’s issues. So, anyway, take it away, Max:
Recently there has been a lot of righteous finger-wagging at racist comments uttered by older white personalities. When celebrity chef Paula Deene, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and rebellious rancher Cliven Bundy spoke bad words about black people, mainstream and social media pounced.
Deene and Sterling are economic elites who have made fortunes employing black labor and selling black culture. It is sadly ironic that they disparage the very group whose alienated labor they exploit and whose culture they have commodified. But the popular criticism of their racist statements has not approached such a systemic analysis—remaining instead at the surface level of the individual. The uproar chastises these people as racist celebrities, when the real danger is that they are authority figures presiding over economically powerful institutions with broad cultural influence. Racism matters most when it is combined with power. But the internet snarkfest has avoided that point almost entirely.
Ostensibly progressive white pundits, hipsters and intellectuals flaunted their antiracist bona fides by trashing the curmudgeonly old racists. These eager acts of reproach came fast and furious at the low hanging fruit of racist white people forged in an era of racist white supremacy (which itself shows that cultural change often comes at the pace of generational replacement).
But the critical finger-pointing from the left seemed to be more about feeling good about ourselves than actually engaging in a deeper analysis of the realities of racism and racial injustice in contemporary America.
Of course, we should call out racist statements from quarters both lofty and low. As classical sociologist Emile Durkheim might contend, punishing racist deviants in the court of public opinion is necessary for society to reaffirm its antiracist values, to create social cohesion based, in part, on social norms against racism.
However, we cannot content ourselves with cyber-tar-and-feathering the ancient miscreants. Indicting individuals alone leaves wholly unscathed the root of the problem.
Another classical sociologist, Karl Marx, made the point that people’s beliefs derive from the society in which they live and work. Changing people’s beliefs, then, cannot be accomplished by argument and shaming alone. You have to alter the base of society. In The German Ideology, Marx wrote:
all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism, by resolution into “self-consciousness” or transformation into “apparitions,” “spectres,” “fancies,” etc. but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history
Accordingly, we cannot end the ideological specter of racism by gleefully spewing snark in response to select individuals’ racist statements. To change beliefs, we have to change the system.
Vociferous finger-wagging makes us feel good and righteous about ourselves, but it does nothing to change the material foundations of racism. Unequal group relations and institutional racism go unmentioned as the internet gangs up on a few old white racists. No matter how many poignant reprimands we make of racist individuals’ speech, the conditions Black people face in this society will remain unchanged.
We jail blacks six times more than we jail whites. Blacks live four years fewer than whites. Black unemployment is more than double white unemployment. The high school dropout rate for black students is 40% higher than the rate for white students.
Instead of merely being what Marx sarcastically called “critical critics”—those who attempt social redress through words alone—we should take these opportunities to bring attention to—and to change—the poor social conditions and institutional discrimination disproportionately faced by people of color. Attacking the material foundations of the problem will be more effective than simply laughing at the wrinkled old symptoms of the problem.
And it will still make us feel good about ourselves.