Ignorant racism occasionally bursts onto the scene in the national media because the racists involved are unaware of the social and political impact of their blatantly racist talk. Sometimes ‘honest’ racists don’t even believe they are racists and are ignorant of the nature of their racist thinking. Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has refused to pay his fees for grazing on BLM land – our land – and does not recognize the existence of the U.S. government, may fall into that category, with his seemingly unconsciously racist comments about black folks. Donald Sterling, the wealthy owner of the LA Clippers, on the other hand, was recorded making private racist comments that went viral; but only then did it become public that he had for decades practiced housing discrimination against Blacks and Latinos in his Los Angeles properties and that the NBA had tolerated it all those years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar exposed the hypocrisy of public anti-racism a day or two later in his Time Magazine opinion piece on the reaction to the Sterling exposure. Then the NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him for life.
Liberal white folks don’t like to hear racist talk, but they routinely tolerate institutionalized racism. And smart “closet” racists know how to appear “politically correct” in order to avoid the uncomfortable reactions of more sensitive people, despite their racist behavior and attitudes, which are re-coded to appear to the unsuspecting ear to refer to something other than race. Some, like Sterling, talk quite differently in private and in public settings. Magic Johnson expressed hurt and disgust with that hypocrisy in an interview after the “Sterling tapes” were revealed, having been given public ‘respect’ by Sterling before his private racism directed at Magic was revealed. Sterling embraces his racism but tries to avoid the embarrassment of its expression in public. Cliven Bundy, unused to the public limelight, appeared unaware and divulged his personal thinking unfiltered, then was made partially aware by the public reaction and tried to ‘dial it back.’
But we make a big mistake if we think we can understand racism in America by assuming that “racists” are only those people who make racist statements in public. Structural institutionalized racism is alive and well in America, and it is far more important than the naïve racism of fringe isolates like Cliven Bundy, who only recognized the damage to his image when public exposure showed him his own racism. What these different cases can teach us is that personal racism can take many forms and may have different levels of self-consciousness attached to it, but it is not the essence of contemporary racism in America.
The politically correct re-coded racists are in total denial, at least publicly. By avoiding traditionally racist language, they think they are immune to the charge of being a racist, even as they harbor feelings of superiority over the Other. They think of racism as merely a matter of proper speech. But in fact these folks are the bread and butter of institutional racism in America – an endemic system of inequality whereby the racism is built into the social and economic culture and institutional practices of society. In some respects it is as widespread as ever. Many ‘liberals’ voted for Barack Obama at least in part to demonstrate their lack of racism, which in polite company allowed them to proclaim a “post-racial” America – besides Obama emulates intellectual white social liberalism, with which he charmed them.
Closet racists re-code their racism in various ways. All the attacks on Obama as being a ‘socialist,’ a Muslim, a Kenyan, by ‘birthers,’ et al, merely excuse their closeted racist belief that a black man cannot legitimately be President of the United States of America. They do all they can to explicitly not recognize him as president. Their vision is of a White-Christian Nation, not the multi-racial, multi-ethnic society that we have become. But in a twisted way, the joke is on them. This president may be a good deal smarter than Dubya, but he is as strong a supporter of the corporate-state plutocracy as any president – in that sense, he is as ‘white’ as anyone, since it is the white male who symbolically represents the status quo anti. Remember, race is a social construct – in both biology and anthropology it has failed the test as an empirically viable concept, but it is a social reality.
America’s mostly unacknowledged status as Incarceration Nation, the system of actual apartheid embodied in the increasingly corporate prison-industrial complex, with the highest number of prisoners in the world, sustains our racism. Structural racism is a set of institutional practices that produce racist outcomes of inequality whether or not the individual actors are personally racist. As Michele Alexander has so perceptively demonstrated, a New Jim Crow system of segregation – facilitated by the sustained system of residential and educational segregation and media indifference – has emerged mostly from the drug war, which incarcerates massive numbers of mostly boys and men of color – despite equivalent rates of drug use by whites – producing in effect a new caste system stigmatizing and isolating many young blacks and browns from the economy and society.
Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy are best understood as anachronisms, although Sterling’s wealth institutionalizes his personal racism. We need not be so offended by them, for their personal pathologies are not today’s real problem of racism. They are relics of an openly racist past in which racist language was merely the cultural expression of an openly self-acknowledged oppressive system. Today’s re-configured system of racial oppression and re-coded racist language pose a greater danger by their camouflage. White liberal reactions of disgust over these relics reflect a discomfort with what may be a subliminal recognition of the continued racial caste system in their imagined “post-racial America.” Where are they when white male millionaire congressmen repeatedly engage in a strategy of degradation and obstruction that no white president has ever experienced? They blame it on “party politics,” not the re-coded racism they tolerate.