THE BLOG
05/01/2014 07:36 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2014

How Big of a Deal Are Donald Sterling's Comments, Really?

sterling

What makes something a "big deal"? It almost certainly has to do with how extraordinary it is, right? Something that is a big deal and deserves an uproarious reaction must be uncommon, must be exceptional, must be a phenomenon you don't encounter all the time. So, whether something is a big deal has everything to do with context. As an example, let's take a look at an American who travels to a remote part of the world. When a white American man arrives in Luxi, China -- the small mountain village where my father was born -- it's a big, big deal. This white man is practically a unicorn. He's a mythological creature to the local population, and while he may just be frantically looking for a bathroom after a two-hour car ride across rough mountain roads, the locals see him and think: "Wow, look at how urgently he moves. Look at how he bounces slightly with his knees, energetic like a young Ronald Reagan! Like a young Bob Saget! Like a young [fill your own blank white American celebrity]!" In a southern Chinese village, the white American is something that is not often seen, something surprising and unexpected, and therefore he is a big deal worthy of intense reaction. However, you take this same man and place him in any suburb in the United States, and he goes from a unicorn to simply being 'Larry.' Larry with the indecisive career path and the suspect bladder.

Ever since Donald Sterling's comments -- "don't bring Black people (to my games)" -- became public, the American landscape has felt tremors of outrage. The media has certainly played its part, treating the incident as a very, very big deal, and numerous high-profile individuals have lined up with military-like efficiency to denounce Sterling's character. But let us ask: are comments such as Sterling's extraordinary? Are they uncommon? Are they sentiments we do not encounter on a regular basis in the United States of America? I think it's clear that the answer to all of these questions is no.

Racism can be seen as a language of perception and behavior. It is a way of perceiving (interpreting) the world where one sees those of other races as not simply inferior, but ultimately less human, and therefore not as worth valuing so far as the things they experience, feel or suffer through as human beings. It is a way of behaving such that one takes actions, conscious or unconscious, to keep those of other races pressed downward into weaker states of power and lesser states of freedom, with respect to everything from confidence and sense of self-worth, to economic mobility and education -- this oppression is accomplished through words, images, laws, policy, violent force, etc. As with any other language, when it comes to the lingua of racism those who are fluent can recognize its patterns and meanings very precisely, while those who have never properly studied the language are often unable to even recognize its presence, let alone grasp its meaning. This is the underlying reason why, in today's America, you will have two people sitting next to one another on the metro, or working together in the same office, or in some cases dating one another and at night intimately merged onto a single bed, where one person will feel an enduring pain over the ferocious levels of racism that exist in this country, while the other will, with absolute sincerity, believe racism to not exist outside of the curriculum of history classes or the grainy black-and-white footage of documentary films.

Those who can read and interpret the language of racism with some fluency know that the Donald Sterling incident -- someone making hateful, discriminatory comments -- embodies the most common form of racism. America is populated by millions of Donald Sterlings, rich and poor, male and female, boss and employee; and while Sterling now bears a public crucifixion for the way he sees the world, his sentiments are echoed by a proud chorus of like-minded Americans in living rooms, locker rooms, company boardrooms, Internet forums and article comment sections all across this country. But racist commentary like Sterling's is merely the decorative sign that hangs at the front gate of the old and vast estate where American racism lives. American racism, like many manifestations of the devil in America, is incredibly cunning. You think he dons a white hood and rides a horse, but he wears a suit that costs more than your rent and has a chauffeur. You think he's the one casting aggressive looks on your walk home, but he's the one shaping the laws for the land upon which your house is built. American racism is so smart, so agile, that he's convinced many of us that he doesn't even exist; and his truly powerful movements are much more complex, deceptive,and devastating than the ugly comments of an old man. Donald Sterling is nothing more than a piñata of racism, now dangling from the rope of his own primitive words: he is a colorfully painted example of racism that requires no work to identify or understand, and becomes a convenient object for people to gather around to beat aggressively. But one can very much lash at Donald Sterling with boiling words, while not being able to see the true face of American racism, at all.

The walls of social media roar now with angrily thumb-tapped expressions of fury in response to Sterling's comments. But if the nation is so offended by racism, why is there no consistent public outrage for the ongoing racist practices that deeply affect entire communities of Americans on a daily basis? Perhaps it is because the more complex (and sinister) gestures of racism -- actions that powerfully inhibit the mobility of large groups of people -- are not packaged into simple statements that are convenient to understand and be angry about.

Let us consider what the most racist practices taking place in the United States would sound like, as direct statements:

"Let's develop a prison system that makes money by being filled with prisoners. For-profit prisons with quotas. Then we'll target Black and Latino men from low-income communities to fill these prisons. They can't afford lawyers, and they're deprived of the necessary education to fight back, so it's easy."

[Learn more: Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States]

"Let's come up with special laws in largely Black and Latino communities to make it harder for them to vote, because they don't vote for the things that serve our interests."

[Learn more: Wave of Voter Suppression Measures Targets Latinos]

"Let's portray minorities in television shows and movies in a way that makes them look like stereotyped one-dimensional caricatures. We'll make Blacks and Latinos look like meatheads, thugs and criminals. Asians will be nerds and martial artists. Arab characters will be terrorists. We'll make all their women look like exotic sex objects."

[Learn more: Common Stereotypes of Minorities in Film and Television]

"Let's pass laws that ultimately work so Black people can be shot in the name of self-defense, and make it easy for the shooters to be acquitted."

[Learn more: A New Look at Stand Your Ground Laws]

"Let's have our media focus on sensationalist issues like old men making racist comments, and ignore the systemic issues that make it hard for minorities to maintain a healthy, successful life on a daily basis."

[Learn more: Moving the Race Conversation Forward]

All things evolve -- they become more elaborate and refined over time as the result of the ongoing work of intelligence. Human written language was once comprised of basic shapes scratched onto the surfaces of cave walls, but today manifests itself as invisible particles of information precipitating through the air to take these words from the gentle depression of my fingertips to the electronic glow of your computer or smartphone monitor. The language of American racism was also once comprised of blunt and basic symbols: plantation owners whipping, raping and hanging their Black slaves, or the robbing, murder and rape of Chinese immigrants during the era of the California Gold Rush and the Transcontinental Railroad, etc. Today, American racism has been engineered over time into a more sophisticated language, with a grammar built of millions of less noticeable acts of dehumanization and oppression subtly encoded into our nation's way of life: its evening news, its movies and television programs, its laws, its hiring practices, etc. If you stood right now before the specter of American Racism sitting upon his throne of golden bones, he himself would tell you: "Ha. Of course Donald Sterling is not a big deal. Donald, Donald, Donald. Just another of my dispensable pawns. I laugh. I laugh watching you all feverishly call for his head... and then I look across the great stone chessboard, to admire all the other pieces I have in play."

Subscribe to the Black Voices email.
Stay plugged in with the stories on black life and culture.