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Why Celebrities' Racist Rants Don't Matter So Much

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DONALD STERLING
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The American public is quick to demonize people who are blatantly racist. When Justin Bieber was exposed for a racist jingle and joke, the public was quick to distance themselves from him. When secretly recorded audio revealed that Los Angeles Clippers owner Don Sterling had told his girlfriend to stop associating with people of color, he lost ownership of the team and was banned from the NBA for life. And let's not forget the infamous Don Imus, a radio host, who called the Rutgers women's basketball team a bunch of "nappy-headed hos" and subsequently lost his job for it.

The consequences for these famed faces were issued swiftly, and rightly so.

That's because America abhors racism. Conspicuous racism, that is. It's easy to disdain the obvious. It allows our nation to be facetiously racially progressive. On the surface we won't tolerate acts of bigotry or discrimination. But speaking candidly, I think we punished those celebrities because they were practicing antiquated racism in the form of blatant racial bigotry, not because we are post-racial.

The problem is that racism is rarely flagrant anymore, and when it is, it isn't nearly as deleterious as new racism. New racism is colorblind.

The paradigm of racial rhetoric in America has shifted from overt racism and de jure discrimination to colorblind rhetoric. As opposed to the Jim Crow era of laws that explicitly precluded people of color from political, economic, and social participation, we have managed to convert public action and perceptions to a race-neutral model that asserts that acknowledging race perpetuates racism and exacerbates inequality. Colorblind doctrine holds that the problem of race isn't systemic but a problem perpetuated by the racist beliefs and actions of a select few individuals.

Colorblind ideology also asserts that the most insidious racial inequities are vestiges of the past, and that our society is much more equitable than it once was. To an extent this is true. We have made monumental gains in equity through policies such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and massive social movements such as the black workers' struggles in St. Louis and the civil rights movement coupled with political progressivism.

But those gains have been thwarted by incremental policy changes, most recently the Supreme Court ruling upholding a state amendment in Michigan banning affirmative action in admission to the state's public universities. These policy modifications have been bolstered by colorblind rhetoric that asserts that we shouldn't give "preferential treatment" to people of color and have been used to scale back policies designed to redress institutionalized racism and discrimination in educational institutions and the labor and housing market, most notably affirmative action.

Don't get me wrong: We still try to remedy racial injustices, at least superficially. We enact policy such as Obama's recent initiative, My Brother's Keeper, aimed at addressing black male attrition in secondary and higher education, improve retention, and close the opportunity gap. The problem with such policies and rhetoric is that it treats the symptom of racism, inequality, but not the underling ailment: institutionalized discrimination rooted in inaccurate renderings of people of color that serve to reinforce those inequalities, as exhibited by many of our recent prominent personalities.

Instead, it's much easier to vilify and demonize those celebrities as outliers; it's classic colorblind semantics, according to educator Bonilla-Silva. They are the ones who are racist. Look at the negative perceptions they hold of people of color. They say such horrible things. It's never us. And that's why we care vehemently about the actions of celebrities. It's much easier to scapegoat and chastise the words of a few celebrities than to introspectively look at the actions and words of the country. If we believe that, then we really don't need policies like affirmative action, do we?

This is the veil of colorblind racism. We're outraged about blatant acts of racism, but we're OK with institutionalized racism that prevents people of color from obtaining jobs, quality education, and employment. We consistently roll back policy aimed at redressing historical injustices. And that, my friends, is the worst kind of racism. Don Sterling's words won't keep people from entering college. Don Imus won't stop the Rutger's team from viable employment opportunities. But curtailing policies designed to remedy racial injustices, systemic racism, and colorblind ideologies will.

This is why the public reaction to public displays of racism is meaningless. We will denounce explicitly racist verbiage, but we'll exonerate a man who killed a young black boy because he "looked suspicious." Don Sterling is banned for life from the NBA for dogmatism, but we don't shoot a second glance at the propaganda directed at boys of color that tells them they're naturally good at athletics (and little else). Don Imus is fired, but women of color are still subject to white hegemonic standards of beauty. Justin Bieber espouses racist rhetoric, but we give him a pass because he has a few black friends.

Yes, it is crucial to reject the statements and actions of bigoted individuals if we hope to progress toward racial equity. But as a nation, we only demonize blatant racism and allow covert racism to go unchecked. That is where the conundrum inherently lies, and addressing colorblindness becomes increasingly important.

W.E.B Dubois' prophetic assertion that the problem of the 20th century is race is still relevant and very real in the 21st century. Racism is as American as apple pie. It is woven into the cloth of American culture. Just because the paradigm has shifted from overt racism to colorblind rhetoric, it doesn't mean that racism has dissipated. Publicly denigrating celebrities' statements is an issue of semantics. It's not racial progressivism; it's scapegoating. We fail to discern that the actions of individuals are not removed from the beliefs and behaviors of our nation. We care more about the behaviors of a few rather than the actions of a country, and this is deeply entrenched in colorblindness.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to Don Imus as a radio DJ. He's a radio host. The post has been updated accordingly.