Old-School Bigotry? We Need to Fight 21st-Century Racism

Your Take: The blatant prejudices of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling are easy to handle. Addressing the racism that truly hurts African Americans requires a new approach.

Cliven Bundy; Donald Sterling
Cliven Bundy; Donald Sterling George Frey/Getty Images; ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling have focused America’s attention on racism in a way we haven’t seen for many years. But their racism is an echo of centuries past, and the outraged response to it, as good as it feels, does nothing to address the virulent strain of racism that assails black Americans today.

Bundy’s racism is the 19th-century variety, with its nostalgia for slavery and its sloppy generalizations about black Americans. Sterling’s is the 20th-century kind, the kind that strove to keep black people away from the homes, stores, offices and sports arenas where white people gathered. 

Twenty-first-century racism is a highly evolved variant on its historical antecedents. As the 19th-century racists, whom Bundy channels, lost their grip, they adopted the 20th-century tactics of people like Sterling. Then, as 20th-century racism became socially taboo, America’s peculiar phenomenon morphed again, into an interlocking complex of institutional practices that present a new set of extraordinary challenges for black Americans. Here’s what racism in the 21st century looks like:

* A financial-services industry that pushed toxic subprime mortgages into black communities, resulting in the destruction of most of the household wealth black Americans had accumulated in the past half-century;

* An educational system that produces an achievement gap that leaves the average black high school graduate reading at the level of the average white eighth-grader;

* A health care system that leaves black Americans substantially worse off than other Americans in infant mortality, life expectancy and the prevalence of almost every major, life-threatening disease;

* A mass-incarceration program that has turned a generation of inner-city black youths into current or former wards of the criminal-justice system, and contributed significantly to the crippling weakening of black family structures in this country;

* A vicious circle of growing income inequality and an increasing imbalance in political power between the oligarchs and everyone else;

* The relentless commitment of one of our political parties to stoking the resentments of lower- and middle-income white people in a desperate effort to hold on to its waning power.

In the context of 21st-century racism, Bundy and Sterling are unimportant people, one an unrepentant thief in a cowboy hat, the other a slumlord, whose history of unsavory business practices has left a trail like slime behind a snail.