Donald Sterling's abhorrent, racist comments have drawn historical levels of public ire. Sterling's comments came mere days after Cliven Bundy's similarly terrible racist comments also led to a public outcry. Over the past several weeks, America has focused on Bundy and Sterling, while the Supreme Court's ruling on Affirmative Action in Michigan has faded from the public consciousness. What Sterling and Bundy said is reprehensible, however, it has little actual effect on Blacks in America. The Supreme Court's ruling bears a much larger impact on American minorities.
Attacking Sterling and Bundy is only half the battle. Criticizing them is easy. Overt racism and slurs are universally accepted as bad. Like anything easy, criticizing them also doesn't produce very tangible results. Bundy and Sterling aren't outliers. They come from a culture of pervasive racism that sometimes manifests itself in explicit ways. More often than not though, it doesn't.
Subtle and structuralism racism is actually what makes being black in America difficult. Being evaluated for the way you speak, the color of your skin, or even how your name sounds are embedded in American culture in a way that most people aren't cognizant of.
Justice Sotomayor poignantly illustrated this muted side of racism in her dissent of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action when she wrote:
Race matters to a young man's view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes... Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce the most crippling thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'
That's the kind of racism that's very hard to understand for Americans who have never been marginalized.
Academic research strongly supports Justice Sotomayor's rhetoric on the importance of race. Blacks are less likely to be hired for jobs than white individuals with equivalent resumes. Having a "minority-sounding name" significantly hurts an individual's chances at getting a job interview. Within higher education, white males are far more likely to receive responses to their emails from professors than women or minorities. This could have larger effects on success in higher education. Maintaining relationships with professors is integral in getting recommendation letters for professional and graduate school later in life.
Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that colorblindness is the best way to ameliorate these issues of racism, stating, "the [racial] preferences do more harm than good." Roberts would probably not condone Bundy and Sterling's insults on an entire race. He also probably wouldn't condone other insults that go beyond name-calling. The insults that truly hurt black Americans are things like structural inequity that tightly follows racial lines, food deserts in minority neighborhoods, and mass incarceration.
Policy change is necessary to combat these social ills. Acknowledging race is an important part of that. It's integral in stopping inequity. According to a 2004 study, Affirmative Action has contributed to a substantial increase of black law students and black lawyers.
Similar results have been reproduced outside of the college admissions process. In the job market, blacks have historically endured much higher rates of unemployment than whites. Federal action has also been an effective tool in stopping this. University of Chicago professors William Sites and Virginia Parks found that there were brief periods of time where the racial employment gap slightly lessened: the 40s, the late 60s, and early 70s. Parks and Sites found that that there were several significant federal civil rights and anti-discrimination initiatives during these periods that had, "dramatic impacts on employment discrimination."
Affirmative Action is only a portion of a larger solution. The most important part is to preserve the government's ability to carry out the goals of the 14th Amendment and provide equality for all ethnicities.
At some point, the government will need to step back and remove itself from adjudicating issues of race and discrimination, but that only comes after all races have equal footing in the U.S. political process. When an entire group is marginalized with voter ID laws and gerrymandering that favors white candidates, they can't vote their way out of oppression.
In the meantime, the best thing America can do for race is address the more difficult aspects of it. Bundy and Sterling deserve reproach, but only paying attention to them will fix very little. We also need to focus on the kinds of racism that produce structural inequity and listen to the constructive words of people like Justice Sotomayor instead of the hateful ones of Bundy and Sterling.