Race continues to be a major focus of our society and political culture. As children growing up in the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of us thought that by now we would live in a post-race-conscious society where skin color and ethnic background wouldn’t matter so much.
Progress has been made, of course, from the Jim Crow Era and the tone of black-white relations that were a part of everyday life 50 years ago. Here in the South, separate restrooms, waiting rooms, water fountains and other overt signs of segregation were ubiquitous in every town. Having black and white children attending the same school was just beginning in that era.
Today, all of that is just something our children read about in textbooks.
Still, our society hasn’t escaped from controversy over race. Even with the nation’s first black president in office, we continue to view many issues through the prism of skin color or ethnic background.
A couple current issues highlight this continuing divide.
First, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a new section in Michigan’s state constitution which bans the use of race in college admissions is legal. In effect, voters in Michigan have outlawed affirmative action based on race in their higher education programs and the Court allowed that to stand.
“As Justice Harlan observed over a century ago, “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” said Justice Antonin Scalia following the ruling. “The people of Michigan wish the same for their governing charter.”
Affirmative action in college admissions began as a way for minorities that had historically been discriminated against to have the opportunity to get a higher education. But it has been controversial for decades because in some instances, weaker-performing minority students got into a college by bumping a higher-achieving white or Asian student. Many people decried what amounted to reverse discrimination.
The real issue here is one of time. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, affirmative action policies made some sense. The stench of Jim Crow still hung in the air.
But now, 50 years later, is it still necessary to put a finger on the scales for any race or class of people in college admissions? If not now, then when do we move beyond the need for such policies and arrive at a true color-blind society?
The second recent incident to highlight racial tension was the comments by 80-year-old Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers basketball team. Sterling was recorded having a private conversation with a female associate in which he berated her for bringing black guests to games and posting photos of herself with black people online.
The outrage was immediate, in large part because the vast majority of NBA players are black and because the league has tried hard in recent years to distance itself from the image of “thug” culture that had come to personify the NBA in the 1980s. The last thing the NBA wants is to have any kind of racial controversy that might divide its fan base.
The league quickly banned Sterling from all its games and is moving to force him to sell the Clippers at what would likely be a garage-sale price given that he has no choice in the matter.
Even for a man of his generation where racial sensitivity is mostly unknown, Sterling has a reputation for being a bigoted jerk. Still, it’s troubling that the NBA can force a man to sell his property because of what he said in the privacy of his own home. Sterling didn’t pronounce his bigoted remarks in public and had no idea he was being recorded. Private thoughts and comments no matter how obnoxious are still private thoughts.
Repugnant as his views may be, to deprive a man of his property because of what he thinks is somehow un-American. If we are going to punish people for being jerks or stupid, there’re a lot of people who need a Puritanical whipping.
While these two issues may seem very different on the surface, they are in fact just part of a much larger picture into which racial issues are woven across the nation. There is also a fair amount of hypocrisy here too.
Why don’t we apply the affirmative action process that is controversial in Michigan to the NBA owners? Three-fourths of NBA players are black, but all but one or two NBA owners are white. Shouldn’t some of the white owners be forced to sell to black owners to balance the scales? Or perhaps the NBA should have affirmative action policies on players so that more white players are admitted to the league where they are vastly underrepresented based on the overall population?
Crazy ideas? Of course.
But in a society where crazy policies sometimes get traction because of agendas rooted in race there’re a lot of irrational things that can happen.
There are no easy or quick answers to any of this. There have always been divisions among people around the world based on religious, ethnic and racial differences.
While we’re further along the road today toward a color-blind society, it will be a long slog until race as a polarizing force in our society ceases to be an issue.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.