By Lee A. Daniels
Donald Sterling, the disgraced San Diego Clippers owner (thus far), is like the proverbial bad penny: he won’t go away. He’s still trying to whistle the “I’m-not-a-racist” ditty to anyone who’ll listen.
His attempts to obscure the obvious have produced two important results. First, of course, they’ve confirmed the accuracy of our first impressions. Sterling has shown that the racial sentiments the world heard first on that now-infamous tape aren’t just the one-time ravings of a bitterly jealous old man. Secondly, the racism and sexism he’s so bluntly put on display multiple times now has, along with other recent developments, underscored that these forms of bigotry in America, while less powerful than before, are still widespread, and will be for a long time to come.
So, it’s important to keep including in our conversation on race Sterling, and the chiseling Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy—whose racist comments helped puncture the notion that he was some sort of hero of the Old West fighting against unjust federal intrusion—as individual examples of that broader point.
And now, we can add Robert Copeland to that list. Copeland, you’ll recall, is the now-former police commissioner of the small town of Wolfeboro, N.H., who was outed after being overheard in a restaurant loudly calling President Obama that long-time favorite slur of white racists. Subsequently, Copeland bluntly declared in an e-mail to the town’s two other police commissioners that “I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse (sic). For this, I do not apologize – he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.” He did not explain his “criteria.”
To their credit, residents of the town of 6,300 (of which, according to reports, about 20 are black; the state’s black population is about one percent) quickly and angrily demanded at a packed town meeting that the 82-year-old official resign—a demand that was seconded by a large swath of local and state officials, and the town’s most prominent vacationer, Mitt Romney. They represent the Americans of all backgrounds who don’t tolerate the old bigotry, whether it’s expressed publicly or privately.
Some would say of Copeland—as what was said of Sterling and Bundy—that he’s not merely one individual stuck in the past and that is unseemly “piling-on” to keep condemning him. They say it distracts from the serious discussion we should be having about the far more important manifestations of bigotry.
Others would use the claim of the NBA’s Maverick owner Mark Cuban that “we’re all prejudiced” in different ways and that “before we can help others deal [with] racism, we have to be honest about ourselves” as an excuse to, in fact, do nothing. Tainted though we “all” may be by different biases, many of us don’t let whatever biases we may have rule our behavior, and we don’t use them as an excuse for inaction when we witness the blatant or subtle bigotry of others—as the overwhelmingly White residents of Wolfeboro, N.H. proved.
Their reaction, as I’ve said, demonstrated anew that confronting individual expressions of bigotry is important in helping illuminate how entrenched anti-black racism and bigotry of all kinds remain in the American system as a whole.
After all, the American system and its institutions are, overwhelmingly, run and heavily influenced by white men; By white billionaires and millionaires, like Donald Sterling, who control vast economic empires and move in the most sophisticated and elite of circles. By white police chiefs, and fire chiefs, school superintendents, politicians, and so on, who, like Robert Copeland, hold responsible positions in their communities and thus help operate the country’s governmental and civic infrastructure. And, by individual owners of all kinds of businesses, like Cliven Bundy, who are always praised as constituting the backbone of the country.
Remember that—and then consider the racial malice in each of these men’s remarks. Cliven Bundy, on a drive-by past a Las Vegas federally subsidized housing project, sees “enough” of some black residents there to declare all Black people worthless. Donald Sterling’s perverse jealousy of Magic Johnson, who has excelled as an athlete, a businessman and a philanthropist, propels him to charge that Black Americans don’t help one another. And, finally, according to Robert Copeland’s “criteria,” Barack Obama, a former United States Senator and the twice-elected president of the United States, is just a n—–.
In the comments of these three men, one can take a long walk back through the America’s tragic racial past, and understand better why this month’s 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka finds more Black children attending segregated schools now than in 1980.
That’s part of the evidence that continuing to talk about Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy and Robert Copeland, and other individuals like them isn’t a distraction from America’s conversation on race but a central part of it.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.