Who’s a racist?

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.”

bundySo 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.

stirlingDon­ald 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


  • I am work­ing on a book-blog which can be seen at [one word] theoryofirony.com, then click­ing on either the “sam­ple chap­ter” or “blog” but­tons. My Rube Gold­berg con­trap­tion of a brain processes the world with an odd, well-caffeinated kind of logic. Why is there an inverse pro­por­tion between the size of the print and the impor­tance of the mes­sage? Art. Sci­ence. Reli­gion. I call this eccen­tric think­ing the The­ory of Irony and if your busy sched­ule per­mits, why not give a read, leave a com­ment or cre­ate a link?

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    Ramya Raju

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