The debt we owe racists [Commentary]

Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling show what lies below

Susan Reimer

1:53 PM EDT, April 30, 2014


The racist comments of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who wondered aloud if blacks were better off in slavery, and NBA owner Donald Sterling, who warned his Mexican and African-American girlfriend not to bring blacks to games played by his Los Angeles Clippers, have brought down on these men a torrent of outrage, retribution, scorn and financial penalty.

I think we owe them a big "thank you."

Mr. Bundy looked like just another Wild West nut who was refusing to pay fees for grazing his animals on federal land until conservatives took up his anti-government cause. His comments on how the black family supposedly thrived under slavery, however, caused his supporters in politics and the media to back-pedal like mad. I'm talking about you, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, presidential hopeful. I'm not sure Sean Hannity of Fox News realizes yet how much of a hypocrite he is.

Meanwhile, it took a tape recording of Mr. Sterling's offensive comments to a woman identified as his side-dish girlfriend about being photographed with Magic Johnson to finally generate enough outrage in the NBA to ban him for life and try to force him to sell his team. This, despite the fact that the beliefs of this slumlord — who didn't want to rent to blacks because he said they smelled bad and attracted pests — were recorded in federal lawsuits.

These two clowns deserve a citizens' commendation.

Not only did their comments force those in power to go on the record and repudiate them, they reminded the rest of us of how deeply held are racist and sexist attitudes in this country. They reminded us that the election of a black president hasn't changed a thing.

Careful speech and political correctness have papered over the stubborn bigotry of Americans, driving it underground until we think it has been wiped away. Then guys like these — who didn't simply "mis-speak," but revealed their true feelings — open their mouths and remove any doubt. We still don't trust "the other" in this country, even though it is made up of "others."

The difference is, their hate was recorded and then replayed and replayed for all to hear. There is no hearsay here, no rumor, no smear campaign. Roll the tape. Listen for yourself. Mr. Bundy thinks the federal government takes his hard-earned, rugged individualist money and hands it over to shiftless inner city types who "abort their young children, they put their young men in jail because they never learned how to pick cotton."

Mr. Sterling buys respectability with big checks to the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and owns a team of black athletes worth $500 to $700 million, but he doesn't want his reported mistress (called a gold digger by Mrs. Sterling in a lawsuit) to be seen with blacks. "F--- him, I don't care," Mr. Sterling is heard saying to her about Magic Johnson, "but don't put him on Instagram so the world has to see him and call me."

There are no fine points here. Nothing is open for debate. There is not another way the statements of these men might be interpreted. And — here is my point — a lot of Americans agree with them. Only when these nakedly racists statements hit the windshield of this nation's speeding car do we take notice of what has been there all along. Only when we are shamed into acting, do we act.

The NBA's newbie commissioner, Adam Silver, is being hailed as a courageous hero for throwing the book at Mr. Sterling — banning him for life, fining him the maximum $2.5 million and promising to force him to sell his team. But the players were threatening boycotts during the playoffs, and the advertisers were running for the exits. I contend that anything less would have torn his league apart.

Mr. Bundy is not a simple plain-speaking man unaccustomed to the national spotlight. Mr. Sterling is not just a sick and selfish old man. They are not just a couple of morons in a country where you are free to be a moron.

These men have inadvertently revealed the racism and sexism that simmers just under the surface in just about all of us, and that boils over when foolish men speak their minds.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com

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