Alleged comments by Donald Sterling and musings by rancher Cliven
Bundy suggest that deep-seated racial prejudice remains more prevalent
than many believe, some sociologists say.
By Harry Bruinius
The ongoing debate about race in America has been jolted by the
alleged racist comments by Donald Sterling, owner of the National
Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers for more than 30 years,
and the musings about the cultural characteristics of “the Negro” by
Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy.
The comments were made in very different contexts and expressed very
different types of views.
Sterling, a high-profile real estate magnate, allegedly chastised a
former mistress for appearing in public with black people,
specifically former NBA superstar Magic Johnson.
Bundy, who became a hero of conservative state’s rights advocates
after standing up to agents trying to enforce federal grazing laws,
never expressed dislike or contempt for other races, but espoused an
ideology of racial supremacy that he apparently thought unremarkable.
For many who study racial attitudes, such views — from rank racial
hatred to casual assumptions of white supremacy — may lurk more
commonly than assumed. They suggest that the racism of today has been
papered over by how Americans talk about race in public, which squares
neither with many people’s private beliefs nor with the realities on
“We are now living in a society where there is a huge gap between what
people say publicly about race, and what they say when they think they
are among trusted friends,” said Mark Naison, the chair of
African-American studies at Fordham University in New York. “This
allows us to think we have placed race behind us even though there are
deep underlying tensions.”
“It also allows us to deny that racial disparities in income, wealth,
life expectancy, education, and rates of incarceration, have anything
to do with racism,” continues Naison. “Donald Sterling’s comments
remind us that this conclusion may be premature.”
Opinion polls consistently show white Americans think more progress
has been made against racism than do black Americans. That perception
gap has played out throughout society, even echoing into the U.S.
In gutting the landmark Voting Rights Act in 2012, a 5-to-4 majority
of justices essentially decided that attitudes toward race have
improved significantly. “Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John
Roberts Jr. wrote.
But last week, Justice Sonia Sotomayor mounted a full-scale
intellectual assault on her colleagues’ thinking that race no longer
matters as it once did, calling it “out of touch with reality.”
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak
openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the
Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of
racial discrimination,” Justice Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting
opinion to the court’s 6-to-2 decision upholding a Michigan ban on
affirmative action. “We ought not sit back and wish away, rather than
confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this
view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what
makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does
Some sociologists agree that the progress of recent decades has been
“I think the progress we’ve made is really in rhetoric only,” said
Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle
University in Philadelphia. “You can talk about abstract legal theory
all you want, but Americans live in a real world — and we live in
segregated neighborhoods, in neighborhoods where some schools are very
high performing and some are not, with some populations that are more
likely to be stopped by police while some aren’t.”
Professor Gallagher is currently doing research about racial attitudes
among whites in poor but economically-changing neighborhoods. “Once
the tape recorders are running, and once we’re into the conversation
for 30 minutes and people start to let down their guard a little bit,
they say what they really believe.”
“People use proxy words, things that are either dog whistles or
euphemisms when talking about other races,” he said.
In March, a number of Democrats accused Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of
Wisconsin of using such racially-charged “dog whistles” when he said
poverty was caused by “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities
in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even
thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work”
— a remark which has since been compared to Bundy’s views.
Representative Ryan denies he used this as a proxy for blaming poverty
on race, and he is set to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus
this week to discuss his comments. Rep. Barbara Lee of California has
called them “a thinly veiled racial attack.”
But the furor surrounding Sterling and Bundy is raising questions
about whether racial prejudices are still present but simply bubbling
beneath the surface.
“We thought we had moved beyond that, but I think now that people just
know what’s appropriate to say in public spaces,” said Gallagher.
“But then you have race in the way that people really live their lives
when there is no tape recorder, when they believe they are ensconced
in the safety of being around like-minded people that look like
themselves — then you have people speaking honestly.”