The conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court follows the lead of Chief Justice John Roberts in believing that the nation has moved beyond racial prejudice. That view led to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act last year and to this months ruling against affirmative action in college admissions.
Its true that the United States elected and re-elected its first African-American president, that African-Americans and Hispanics hold many positions of power in the private and public sectors, that some of the nations most popular cultural figures are members of minority groups and that interracial dating and marriage are on the rise. But race still matters a great deal in the United States. Indeed, it may be that the very advancements made by minorities have intensified racial tensions even as social norms have made racist statements intolerable.
Comments made last week by rancher Cliven Bundy and recorded remarks attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling show how race still figures prominently over a wide spectrum. Bundy, the Nevada rancher who was lionized by some for his refusal to pay federal grazing fees, represents the supposedly oppressed white Everyman. He was a cowboy backed by armed men on horseback refusing to pay tribute to a federal government he doesnt recognize. It turned out, of course, that he recognized it quite clearly as the patron of poor African-Americans who he thinks are ruined by government dependency and might have been better off in slavery.
Conservative politicians and Fox News Sean Hannity, who had spoken favorably about Bundys resistance, backed away once The New York Times reported Bundys disturbing views on race. But it hardly could have surprised them that Bundy sees the world in black and white. Resentment over supposed preferences given to African-Americans and the arrival of undocumented Hispanic immigrants animates a great swath of conservative politics. The only surprise was that Bundy was so bluntly candid.
The comments attributed to Sterling and secretly recorded by his black and Hispanic girlfriend show that racism can flourish even in the corporate suite. But the higher it gets, the more subtle it becomes. Sterling gave of his fortune to an extent that the NAACP was scheduled to honor him with a lifetime achievement award in Los Angeles. It has since been rescinded.
In the past, Sterling has been sued by the Justice Department for bias against minorities who sought to rent at his apartment properties. Sterling and his wife, Rochelle, agreed to pay $2.7 million to settle the allegations. Basketball great Elgin Baylor said he experienced a plantation mentality when he worked in Sterlings front office.
Unlike in the days of segregation, few people admit to others or themselves that they make strong judgments about the value of people based on race. And that surface quiet feeds the impression that the nation has moved beyond racial prejudice. But declaring it over and taking down legal responses to it dont make it go away.
In her dissent of the Supreme Courts decision upholding Michigans affirmative action ban, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: In my colleagues view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. 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.
Last week, Bundy and Sterling talked about race. The Supreme Court should talk about it, too, because racial bias is still with us and race still matters.