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Bundy and Sterling Projected Through a Freudian Lens

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Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed swift and firm public and media condemnations against two individuals after they spouted clearly racist sentiments.

In one case, even conservative Republican politicians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and pundits distanced themselves from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy -- whom they previously held up as a "patriot" for standing up to the federal government in his refusal to turn over nearly one million dollars in back fees for cattle grazing rights -- after he openly ranted that black people might have been better off under slavery.

In rapid/rabid order following the Bundy debacle, Adam Silver, Commissioner of the National Basketball Association, announced strong sanctions against Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling soon after his alleged racist and sexist comments came to light in a telephone recording between Sterling and a woman friend released by TMZ.

It is easy for some people now to rest assured that the eruptions by whom they may see as these two "outliers" have been exposed and denounced, and that these individuals received their just punishments. Some feel relieved because to them, this turn of events shows clearly that while these sorts of racist outbursts might have not caused even a wink of the eye or might have been embraced in the past, they are no longer tolerated today in our so-called "post-racial" society.

"Post Racism"?

With the ascendency of Barack Obama during the primaries and his election as the forty-fourth president of the United States in 2008 and to the current time, on numerous occasions the media have asserted that the United States can now consider itself a "post-racial" society, where the notion that "race" has lost its significance, and where our country's long history of racism is now at an end.

For example, National Public Radio Senior News Analyst, Daniel Schorr, during the presidential primaries on January 28, 2008 on All Things Considered noted that with the emergence of Barack Obama, we have entered a new "post-racial" political era, and that Obama "transcends race" and is "race free."

And according to MSNBC political analyst, Chris Matthews, responding to Obama's State of the Union message on January 27, 2010:

He is post-racial by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about.

These commentators and others imply a number of claims in their statements: The first that we have become a "race-blind" or "colorblind" society -- that race has become unimportant, that we don't see "race" anymore. The second implication states that racism (prejudice along with social power to enact oppression by white people over people of color) is a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, this sort of shared denial masks the very real racism and other longstanding forms of oppression continuing and even expanding, which permeate and saturate our nation. In truth, Bundy and Sterling's tirades represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg on the individual, institutional, and societal levels, which no amount of toxic global warming can ever melt away.

The Nation's Freudian Slip Is Showing

So, as the collective chorus speaks out and sanctions begin to take effect in the Farmer Bundy case and in the Sterling-Silver exchange, Sigmund Freud looks down (up?) upon us wagging his ironic finger in our face. He reminds us how we as humans often project onto others unpleasant thoughts or impulses that we deny or fail to deal with in ourselves. Such aggression serves to cleanse the individual of these objectionable feelings or desires, while also enjoying vicarious gratification in these desire.

Freud termed this process reaction formation. This mechanism provides a defense against an impulse in oneself (or one's group) by taking a firm stand against its expression in others. This projection of unacceptable inner strivings translates into the larger combined refusal or denial to accept responsibility for the deep racial divides in the country. Bundy and Sterling serve as the scapegoats in this process.

The origin of the scapegoat dates back to the Book of Leviticus (16:20-22). On the Day of Atonement, a live goat was selected by lot. The high priest placed both hands on the goat's head, and confessed over it the sins of the people. In this way, the sins were symbolically transferred to the animal, which was then cast out into the wilderness. This process thus purged the people, for a time, of their feelings of guilt, shame and fear.

So, while Bundy and Sterling, indeed, well deserve the full consequences for their noxious comments and actions, we will fail to move forward until and unless we as a nation use this time as a real turning point -- to use a mixed metaphor -- by extracting our heads from the comforting and shielding sand and lift the heavy rug under which we have swept the perennial racism on which this country was built, rather than live in the fantasyland of "post-racism," of mindlessly accepting the dishonest fabrication that racism once established in the United States no longer poses an incredible impediment.

My pessimism, however, gets the better of me. As we utterly failed to use 9/11 to finally come together as a nation across political and religious divides; as we failed time after innumerable number of time to utilize the many instances -- like the tragedy at Newtown Elementary School, the ever-mounting gun-related murders in communities like Chicago, and the near-fatal shooting of Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords -- to finally pass common-sense gun laws; as we failed to utilize the British Petroleum Deep Sea Horizons Gulf of Mexico disaster as a call for effective environmental regulations and a real movement in divesting from fossil fuels in favor of clean renewables; as we failed to see and act accordingly following the unprecedented and devastating Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy as harbingers of human responsibility for global warning; as we have failed so many times in the past -- for example, in the Rodney King beating and the senseless murders of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and so many other men and women of color -- to fully address the meanings and realities of this social construction we call "race;" then I see our current opportunity to truly get at the very roots of racism as simply a passing moment that will most likely once again slip away. Our current point of righteous outrage only goes so far.

I hope, though, that I am ultimately proven wrong.