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.
The battle against their kind of racism has already been fought and won. That’s why Sean Hannity and Rand Paul abandoned Bundy the instant he began to opine about “the Negro,” why sponsors like State Farm and CarMax and Kia raced to distance themselves from the Clippers and why NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to ban Sterling for life has been so roundly applauded.
By contrast, the battle against 21st-century racism has not really begun. How should black Americans push back against a financial-services industry so powerful that it has incurred hardly any penalty for bringing the entire economy to its knees? How can we influence drug manufacturers who earn massive profits by pricing lifesaving medications far above the ability of ordinary people to pay for them? How can we wield political power in an era when the Supreme Court is more committed to protecting the power of dollars than the power of voters?
Nothing more starkly illustrates how difficult it will be to fight the battle against 21st-century racism than the fact that the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP was on the precipice of giving Donald Sterling a second lifetime achievement award when the recording of his comments was made public.
The NAACP was a courageous warrior in the battles against 19th- and 20th-century racism. But like the other mainline civil rights organizations, it is woefully unprepared for today’s fight. The fight against 21st-century racism will require different tactics, and different organizational structures, than the battles of earlier centuries.
Harold J. Logan, publisher of Third Set Perspectives, is a businessman, writer and social entrepreneur based in Atlanta and Miami.
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