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May 14, 2014 - 6:53pm

Social Disorder: Redefining racism


The Donald-Sterling-Los-Angeles-Clipper’s fiasco ended as cleanly as it could have. After all, the NBA really only had one of two options: ban Donald Sterling from the league or look racist themselves by “accepting” his comments and letting them slip by without consequence. Since this story blew up online and on TV, we must ask how much the press and its coverage of Sterling had to do with the NBA’s final decision? It seems that because news everywhere sensationalized Sterling’s comments and fired up the whole country, the NBA had no choice but to take action. Had this story stayed undercover and Sterling’s comments never leaked would the NBA have handled the situation differently? Probably. But that’s not the point. The power of media is a beautiful thing. And I’m not arguing that the Donald Sterling leak wasn’t important.

In fact, its probably better that his comments were heard-round-the-world just so that we all now know what kind of a creep he really is. Instead of being surprised by his bizarre and contradictory form of racism, however (I say contradictory because his girlfriend is of mixed race and he is Jewish), we should instead see Sterling as an important example of how racism still permeates American society and seeps into our everyday lives, affecting our culture in toxic snippets.

Most people in this day and age probably don’t even know that they’re racist. Recently a Black friend of mine told me that when he gets in an elevator with a white woman he feels more uncomfortable and scared than she does. When I asked what he meant he said, “It’s always my word against hers when we get out of the elevator. She could claim whatever she wanted and the police would believe her word over mine every time…” I sat there for a second, thinking about the implications of his comment. It suddenly reminded me of the post-Civil War era Reconstruction Amendments. The ones wherein the African American population was finally given full American citizenship, but not really because they weren’t guaranteed any rights in the court system. In other words they couldn’t testify against white people in a court of law and they lacked other courtroom rights (so I guess “citizenship” was a loose term for those Reconstructionist politicians).

In a way, this comparison between the “elevator rights” of young, Black men today and courtroom rights of young, Black men in 1870, is everything the Donald Sterling debate represents. The institutional racism of 1870 contrasted with the masked, but still present racism of 2014. Donald Sterling is on the outside a normal, tolerant man. Hell, he’s even ahead of the curve by dating a woman of mixed race. But inside he harbors an unusual, sick, festering, modern racism — a racism that affords Black people all the rights of an American citizen in the courtroom but prejudices against them in a her-word-versus-mine-elevator scenario.

It's racism on the street. Racism of the mind, not of the institution. Racism that appears gone on the outside but still exists somewhere on the inside. In other words, Donald Sterling might not ever admit to being institutionally or outwardly racist but apparently he thinks of people as being separated into different groups and different classes. He thinks that some classes of people are superior. He is racist. This belief is not exclusive to Sterling — it’s insidious and prevalent in American society. The reason this kind of racism is so scary is because it’s so elusive. It takes a Donald Sterling secret taping to be leaked in order for people to see his true colors. Most other hidden racists will never been exposed.

As the University of Michigan recently has had its hand in the affirmative action debate, now is a good time for Donald Sterling to be an example to us. Look inside and reject any inner prejudices that may exist — accidentally or purposefully. Remember that scientifically we’re all the same and that how we differ is only as beautiful individuals, not as entire groups or classes of people who might look alike and have the same cultural practices. These boundaries mean nothing. Yes, we’re comfortable in our own racial groups because humans crave solidarity, but that doesn’t mean that the other people groups should not be a part of our lives or that they are any different. We will not be truly free of racism and hate in society until all aspects of it — even the modern, festering, invisible, masked ones — cease to exist.

Maura Levine can be reached at