So recently we’ve seen two really remarkable examples of obtuse, stupid, clownish buffoonery on the subject of race. First scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy suggesting that “the nigroes” would have been better off under slavery, when they learned to pick cotton and could be with the families and had something to do.” Second is the remarkably confused and remarkably loathsome set of comments from Donald Sterling, owner of the LA clippers, in which he insisted that his girlfriend not bring black people to games and not be photographed with black people. Are these comments racist?
I want to argue again for a very specific definition of racism: a racist is someone who believes in the biological fact of race. Any historian would agree that there have always been, throughout human history, forms of “color preference.” It’s been a human practice for thousands of years to to terrible things to people who look different, often simply because they look different. That’s not the same as racism. I think pretty much all historians would also agree that “racism” appeared at a very specific moment in human history–I’d put it in the 18th century. “Race” is closely connected to enlightenment science, and to modern capitalism. American slavery was a very specific form of brutal unfreedom: it was racial slavery, buttressed by a scientific idea of racial inferiority.
I argued before that it’s important to make a distinction between racism and bigotry, even though those two things usually go together. It’s possible, but unlikely and rare, to be a racist and a loving person who treats all people fairly and without prejudice. And it’s possible to be, it seems to me, bigoted against dark or light skinned people without being a racist, per se. Most of the time racism and bigotry go hand in hand. But they aren’t the same thing: “color bigotry” predates racism, which again is a specific phenomenon of the “age of enlightenment.”
So is Cliven Bundy a racist? I can’t tell for sure, but I’m leaning yes. I think he’s at least an ignorant buffoon, politically incoherent, and that his weird claim that slavery was better for “nigroes” strongly suggests he’s a racist, because he’s not suggesting it would be better for white people. That he talks about “the nigroe” as if all black people were the same strongly suggests this as well; that he thinks “the nigroe” is a lesser being who benefited from being under slavery confirms it. Does he believe former slaves have an “ancestral claim” to the land their forbears worked? Bundy may indeed be a kind person and have black friends and not be a bigot. It’s possible to be a racist and have no malice in your heart. This is no doubt how he thinks of himself. I’m tempted to say he’s a racist but not a bigot. It’s important to call this stuff out for what it is. That he may like individual black people does not obscure the racism.
Donald Sterling appears to be a particularly loathsome person. The record strongly, really overwhelmingly, suggests he’s both a racist and a bigot. The really creepy thing about Sterling is that his girlfriend, the one who he was taped talking to, describes herself as part black. He owns an NBA franchise with mostly African American players. He understands himself as someone gives black players food and clothing out of noblesse oblige. Sterling puts us right into the most horrible and twisted aspects of the American white supremacist tradition: he loves the thing he loathes. He’s like Jefferson, sleeping with Sally Hemmings while doubting that black people had souls, or Strom Thurmond having an African American Mistress while defending segregation, or fans of the minstrel show, drawn to imitate and emulate the thing they claimed to disdain, or white racists who profess to love individual black people. Sterling embodies all that’s worst about the white supremacist tradition in American life–its contempt, its systemic bigotry, but also its slippery, weaseley quality of claiming to love the target of its disdain.
In a better world the NBA players would join together and simply refuse to play the LA Clippers until they got rid of Sterling–simply boycott all Clippers games.
I think it’s very important to be as precise as possible about charges of “racism.” and to sort out actual racism from bigotry, and bigotry from unconscious privilege. In the case of Sterling we seem to have all these things in one creepy package.
Update: read this defense of Sterling to see why it’s important to sort out the relationship between bigotry and racism