First, there was the Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy, who began with, “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro …,” which then turned out to be the least offensive thing he went on to say about African-Americans. Next was L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who tolerates his mistress socializing with black people only if she isn’t photographed with them and doesn’t bring them to any basketball games. Finally, the incident when Montreal Canadiens player P.K. Subban scored the game-winning goal in a playoff match against the Boston Bruins prompted Bruins fans to explode on Twitter with comments like, “P.K. Subban is a n-----, everyone know that” and “That stupid n----- doesn’t belong in hockey.”
Bundy is 80 years old, therefore his views on “the Negro” will die with him relatively soon. Sterling will presumably lose ownership of his team, though no one believes that he will go down without a fight. However, he’s already made a contribution: His statements were so egregious that they got even Michael Jordan – famously closed-mouthed when it comes to issues surrounding race – to speak out publicly against him.
Unfortunately, the meathead, sore-loser fans who expressed their disappointment using the most incendiary word in America today can’t be held accountable for their subterranean IQs. No one has the time to chase down and educate every meathead, sore-loser in Boston – or in any other city, for that matter. However, Subban himself deflected and rejected the racism flung his way with class and dignity, so to that extent, no harm, no foul.
We all know racism is bad. We just haven’t figured out what racism precisely is. Bundy claims that he isn’t racist because he didn’t actually say that African-Americans would be better off as slaves, he only wondered whether they would be. Sterling’s self-defense is that his views do not accurately reflect who he really is. In effect, he claims that making racist comments does not qualify a person to be an actual racist. I guess what seals the deal for him might be on the level of a guy wearing a sheet over his head, burning a cross on someone’s lawn.
We assume that these guys are the outliers, the rotten apples, the folks who spoil it for everyone. Well, maybe – Bundy, anyway, sure seems wacky. But he spoils things not by making everyone else look bad, but by lowering the bar for the attention we pay to the topic itself. We are justifiably shocked to hear someone pondering the redeeming qualities of slavery, or renouncing being photographed with black people, or using the N-word as an invective. But these Cliven Bundys are the low-hanging fruit in our national dialogue on racism. We should be aiming higher and digging deeper on the subject – it doesn’t always take caricature form. It’s also there in our delayed response to systemic, social injustices, or in tiny moments of personal unkindness.
So we can’t get too self-congratulatory in our moral outrage just yet. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We still have some ways to go.