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Donald Sterling Controversy Shows Complexity of Racism; America Likes it Simple

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April 2014 was a great month to be a Sociology professor.

During the latter part of April, America was reacting to the alleged racist comments made by Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. The topic dominated every pocket of the country, including social media, where I debated friends whose viewpoints starkly contrasted my own. A friend questioned on Facebook if the Clippers’ united stand against Sterling was worthwhile given how far the team had come for the playoffs. It seemed like a given that the Clippers’ opposition to racism and the outcry from fans who wanted swift action against Sterling were nothing but great indicators of how America has progressed with race relations. I called it a “teachable moment” for America about rebuking racism and bigotry.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. And about that “teachable moment” I suggested to my friend? Well, America missed the mark – and so did I. I prefaced how great this controversy must have been for Sociology professors because this issue can be endlessly dissected. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. If there was a sliding scale for accused racists, Sterling would probably be on it. Sterling’s comments did not make him the blatant, Jim Crow racist. His girlfriend, Ms. Stiviano, who recorded Sterling’s alleged racist remarks, is of black and Hispanic descent. Sterling and Staviano appeared to have a problematic relationship and he requested she not bring anyone black to basketball games and to not be seen with them on her Instagram account. However, allegedly sleeping with blacks wasn’t an issue, if she wanted. Sterling was also a friend to influential African-Americans, including reportedly with NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who was outraged by Sterling’s comments. Sterling was also due for honor with a humanitarian award by the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP. (Yes, quite distressing indeed). Do all of these factors suggest Sterling fits the mold of a racist?

The “teachable moment” here is that racism and people we label as racist is more complex than ever. Racism in America is not black and white, as much as it may seem African-Americans are disproportionately affected. The killing of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, drew as much ire and claims of racism as it would if Zimmerman was a white American. America remains wedged in this idea that racism is a white man calling a black man the “N-word” or when a black person is denied a job or housing because of the color of his or her skin.

Blacks are quite familiar with people of different races smiling to their faces as they shake their hands only to wipe them off in disgust later. Sterling’s alleged comments brought to mind an incident when I was 17 and I overheard my uncle speaking outside to a small group of family and friends, saying “I may work with white people, but I would never trust a white person. Ever!” Would I peg my uncle a racist? Before that day, no. Even now it’s hard to fathom him as a racist because he harbors no malice for whites. It doesn’t mean my uncle didn't deserve the racist label, but it illustrates the gray areas of racism.

Racism today can be harder to pinpoint and therefore, harder to combat when it rears its head. For this reason, I often find myself concerned for young black boys and girls growing up today who mayfall victim to ugly, racial stereotypes. Harsh judgments and critiques about their character may ensue because new code words are used to mock them -- or the context of controversial yet accepted words like “ghetto” could be used against them by children Hispanic, Asian, and white kids who have inherited the idea that blacks are ostracized by their own doing.

Far be it for me to steal a great moment in American history, when America was gloriously united and racists kept their mouths shut. But now that we’re done patting ourselves on the back, let’s remain vigilant against racism with an understanding that the dynamics of racism have shifted and we have to be as open-minded about who the real racists are and why they earn that title.

Corey Arvin is Associate Editor of Black Voice News and a winner of the national Scripps Howard Award for Web Reporting. His column is published every Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at Corey@Blackvoicenews.com.

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