The bad news is that rancher Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling have expressed terribly racist views in the last few days, if it is confirmed that the voice on an audio recording obtained by TMZ was in fact Sterling speaking.
The good news is the universal condemnation that both men have received. Republican politicians who had allied themselves with Bundy quickly condemned him. The players Sterling employs and one of his fellow NBA owners, Michael Jordan, who during his playing days largely avoided speaking on controversial issues, distanced themselves from the Clippers boss.
Leading black civil rights leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton attacked Sterling, but so did white sports journalists like TNT’s Ernie Johnson and ESPN’s Bill Simmons. Even President Obama, on a trip to Malaysia to discuss foreign policy, weighed in.
“The United States continues to wrestle with a legacy of race and slavery and segregation that’s still there, the vestiges of discrimination,” Obama said, responding to a question from a reporter on Sterling’s comments. “And I think we just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it, teaching our children differently, but also remaining hopeful that part of why some statements like this stand out so much is because there had been, there has been this shift in how we view ourselves.”
The Obama era, with a racial divide emerging over political issues like voter ID laws but even non-ideological issues like the Trayvon Martin case, has clearly illustrated that America is far from a post-racial nation where racial tensions don’t exist.
But in many ways, we are heading in a positive direction. In Sterling’s case, the question is not if the NBA will punish him but for how long and if it will take direct steps to ensure he is forced out of ownership. It’s very unlikely that a Republican politician will ever speak positively of or appear with Bundy again.
In today’s America, one of the worst things you can be accused of is being intolerant of minorities, which is why Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who was sharply criticized by some black leaders over recent comments he made about inner-city Americans not being interested in finding work, is meeting this week with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in an attempt at damage control.
We are, as a country, increasingly eliminating the most overt forms of racial animus. This is of course not a solution to more unconscious bias that hurts people, for instance, with black-sounding last names applying for jobs, as studies have shown, or young black men like Trayvon Martin, who are still viewed as threats. But the attention on these comments by Sterling and Bundy and their repudiation is another step forward. No longer will it be considered okay to make bigoted comments if you are an older person who grew up in a less diverse America.
And while the views of Sterling and Bundy deserve attention and condemnation, they should not overshadow the many signs of growing racial tolerance in America. As Obama noted, one of the reasons Sterling’s comments stood out was because of how unusual it was to hear such views, such as when the Clippers owner allegedly instructed his girlfriend not to post her pictures with Magic Johnson on her Instagram account.
Obama is of course the best example: no matter how strong some of the racism he has faced at times, he was elected to two terms as president. Interracial marriage rates are growing.
And we are not just making progress on race. Jason Collins has blended into the NBA perfectly and ended any discussion about how a gay player would somehow be a “distraction.” The two most buzzed about presidential candidates right now are women (Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren).
There is an instinct, particularly from progressives, to take Sterling and Branch’s comments and link them to other political issues, such as this week’s decision by the Supreme Court to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action. Sterling and Bundy, they argue, illustrate the continuing legacy of racism that the Supreme Court did not take into account in its decision.
I would argue that approach is unwise. It’s perfectly consistent to strongly oppose comments about blacks being better off during slavery or being inappropriate to be pictured with but also oppose affirmative action and Obamacare, as many conservatives do.
There is something useful about a focus on an issue that nearly everyone agrees on, that Sterling and Bundy made reprehensible comments. The kind of “steady” denunciation of their remarks that the president urged will serve as a deterrent to other people expressing them. Casting views like the ones expressed by Sterling and Bundy out of American life is an important aim unto itself.
Follow theGrio.com’s Political Editor Perry Bacon, Jr. on Twitter @perrybaconjr