Sterling, SAE, and the Myth of a Post Racial Nation

postracialVery little suggests that we live in a post-racial society. Yet here we are, having the same conversation again!

Remember Donald Sterling? It’s been nearly a year since the recorded conversation between him and his then girlfriend, business associate, acquaintance V. Stiviano (also known as Vanessa Perez), went viral. The conversation, first leaked to TMZ, shocked our worlds as Sterling expressed his absolute disdain for black people:

“Why are you taking pictures with minorities?” the man says in the recording. “Why? It’s like talking to an enemy. Hispanics feel certain things towards blacks. Blacks feel certain things toward other groups […] It will always be that way. […] It bothers me a lot that you’re associating with black people. […] You’re supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl. […] You don’t have to have yourself walking with black people.”

Pretty racist, right?

Over the next few weeks and months, the American people continued to express their disgust with Sterling’s words. You would have been hard pressed to find, even among whites, people who supported what he said. In addition, a national debate ensued about what Sterling’s words did to the image that we project before ourselves and others about the United States being a post-racial society. How could we be post-racial if there was evidence of this nasty, vocal hatred of black people? The NBA, sponsors, and others who supported Sterling in the past, clearly not wanting to be mistaken for that guy, distanced themselves from him as quickly as they could.

The same level of reaction, however, did not take place when Sterling found himself at the center of several housing discrimination lawsuits in 2003 and 2006. In the first suit, Sterling was accused of forcing blacks and Latinos out of his rental properties, and the second suit, brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, accused him of refusing to rent to African-Americans in Beverly Hills. While these actions, were significantly more harmful than his conversation with Stivano, they did not receive any wide-spread backlash until after news of his conversation broke. Indeed, the NAACP gave him two awards after the housing discrimination was long and well documented: he was given a Humanitarian Award in 2008 and a President’s Award in 2009. He was, however, stripped of the 2014 Humanitarian Award that he was due to receive after the incident.

Let us fast forward to present day 2015 – same story, different players. Once again, we expressed complete repugnance when a video featuring a racist chant by Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) went viral. The chant, which prominently featured the N-word and made awful references to lynching, landed the students who were apart of the fraternity at the University of Oklahoma in extremely hot water. Not only were they kicked off campus but the Oklahoma chapter of SAE was closed down and the two students who were most responsible for the incident were expelled. The public, except for maybe the hosts of Morning Joe, has once again been united in its virulent condemnation of the incident with statements being made by SAE at a national level, the president of the University, and even David Klinger, an associate professor at Seattle Pacific University and former police officer.

In one breath, Klinger expressed outrage over the SAE controversy (‘I’m appalled as a university professor to see students behave that way’) and in the next condemned Madison Police Chief Michael Koval’s apology to Tony Robinson’s family. Robinson was an unarmed black teenager who was killed by the police last week. As the details about the case continue to come in, Koval expressed sincere remorse over the situation – “life is sacred to me,” he said in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon Monday evening.

Klinger, however, took issue with Koval’s expression of human decency and respect for life. To Klinger, Koval jumped the gun in his remarks because he did not wait for all of the ‘facts’ to come in. For all intents and purposes, Koval broke the cop code, a code which is more prone to see black men as criminals before they ever see them as human. Yet, Klinger is notorious for his support of deadly force by cops when ‘reasonable.’ Vox.com picks up on comments made by Klinger after the shooting of Michael Brown in August:

“Constitutionally, ‘police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances,’ David Klinger, a University of Missouri–St. Louis professor who studies law enforcement officers’ use of force, said in August. The first circumstance is ‘to protect their life or the life of another innocent party’ — referred to as the ‘defense-of-life’ standard by police departments. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect has committed a serious violent felony.

The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger explained, comes from Tennessee vs. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He’d stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn’t shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, “they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you’ve got a violent person who’s fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight.”

Klinger’s inconsistency between the SAE incident and the shooting of Tony Robinson suggest that he – as well as others – are much more opposed to explicit racial bias rather than implicit racial bias, even if the implicit racially biased act is more harmful. Glenn Harris, president for the Center for Social Inclusion, made the distinction between the two at a Convening on Racial Equity in August, suggesting that implicit racial bias happens at a subconscious, seemingly race-neutral level. For its relative invisibility, it is much harder to prove – at least from the vantage point of our country’s messed up legal system – when the discriminatory actions of a cop are racist than when someone verbally, as in the case of Sterling and SAE, uses defamatory language toward black and brown people.

In addition, Harris suggests that people react more viscerally to examples of clear, explicit racial bias. This reaction could be the result of what Dr. Christena Cleveland describes as the Cutting Off Reflected Failure phenomenon- a term coined by social identity theorist C. R. Synder. According to Cleveland, CORFing results when people, in order to boost self-esteem, distance themselves from others who compromise their identity (Disunity in Christ, 2013: 90). In both the Sterling and SAE incident, whites have distanced themselves as far away as possible from the accused.

In a paper released by the Haas Institute, “Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Health Care,” authors john a powell et al suggest that the triggering of stereotype threat is also a factor here. Stereotype threat manifests itself when people are concerned that the actions of an individual will confirm a negative stereotype about their group. The paper states: “under prevailing moral norms, to be racist is to be immoral, and many white people are concerned that they may be presumed to be prejudiced or racist (Haas Institute, 2014: 32). So as not to be perceived as racist individuals who work in racist institutions who live in a racist country, whites are quick to denounce the actions of individuals who clearly still exhibit white supremacist ideology. Whites desperately want to believe that our nation is beyond this level of immaturity and inhumanity.

Unfortunately, however, our country seems to be more concerned about how we are perceived rather than our actual behavior. And so, while we work to protect our image from compromising individuals, our more implicit racist institutions and policies remain the same. In fact, the same people who decry racism over Sterling and SAE’s words are the same people who persistently ignore acts of systematic racism which prove to be significantly more harmful.

For more insight here, we must consider the way that wealth and power is built and maintained in this country. Sterling’s actions to exclude blacks and latinos from housing opportunities is a practice that is well-established in this country, a practice that has allowed middle and upper class whites to accumulate resources and at the same time has continually stripped wealth from communities of color and indigenous communities. Manifest Destiny, homesteading, the G.I Bill, redlining, restrictive housing covenants, and subprime lending are all examples of how policies and practices intentionally excluded communities of color and indigenous communities from housing and also stole wealth from their communities.

Similarly, the police force itself was established to control and suppress black and brown bodies and to make money off of those bodies. The convict leasing system, the war on drugs and mass incarceration are all clear evidences of that. Not only so, the issuing of fines and others fees often bring in revenue for local police departments. In his essay, The Gangsters of Ferguson, Ta-nehisi Coates reports:

“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities.”

There are other implicit racially biased policies that continue to disinvest blacks and other people of color in this country. We must also consider the long-term effects of high unemployment rates in both the black and latino communities – those who do have jobs have largely seen their wages, after adjusted for inflation, stagnant over the last 40 year. We should also look at where health care services are placed, who has access to quality food and education, who is targeted by pay day lenders and cash advance services, and even which communities environmental hazards, such as the Keystone Pipeline, are placed. All of these and more suggest that there is a deep level of institutional and structural practice that continually exploits communities of color and indigenous communities for profit (capitalism is our god and its a greedy god at that!). This proves that the negative and sometimes deadly effects of implicitly racist policies need to be handled with the same level of urgency, if not more, as the explicitly racist harmful comments of the SAE fraternity at the University of Oklahoma.

It is great to see the level of support for black and brown communities when explicitly racist things are said. It is good to know that America at large thinks that those things are inappropriate and derogatory – it shows that we have made some level of progress in terms what is and is not acceptable in the last 50 years! But the greatest work that needs to take place in this country is around the policies and practices that continue to dehumanize, marginalize, and silence all communities of color and indigenous communities. If we truly want to be the nation that we imagine ourselves to be, this is where change truly needs to happen. 

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One thought on “Sterling, SAE, and the Myth of a Post Racial Nation

  1. Pingback: Forgiveness and the State of White Supremacy in America | Ebony Johanna

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