The NBA and Racism in America – by Peter Eisenstadt and Ayala Emmett

The NBA and Racism in America
The Jewish Pluralist Op-Ed
Peter Eisenstadt and Ayala Emmett

Racism’s ugly head is exposed yet again. Social media made Donald Sterling’s racism

a public spectacle in a way that his previous and well-known bigotry did not. The reaction was swift. This time action, there was decisive action against a bigoted tycoon, because, among other things, past and present NBA players, a number of them powerful successful and prominent got into action. A practicing bigot and bully was banished for life from a public space that he so clearly relished and shamelessly abused. There is much to praise in the swiftness of Silver’s reaction, in the grassroots support for the players and various forms of public outrage that made action possible.

What makes this episode so instructive, along with last week’s media furor over the racist gun-totin’ cowboy, Cliven Bundy, is that it exposes the lie that racism is dead, that we live in a post-racial society, or that liberals and Democrats are the “real” racists. Sometimes there is a slightly more sophisticated argument; that liberals affix the “racist” label on anything they disagree with, and that while one might have an argument over things like voter ID laws, or “stand your ground” legislation, it is deeply unfair to accuse supporters of being racist, because racism as it existed in the bad old days is dead. After all, the third Monday in January is Martin Luther King Day.

Well, the old racism is not dead. It is not dead in the NBA, a sports league whose players are three-quarters black, and an institution, as one commentator said this week, is the most popular African American institution in the country after the church. And when some tea party partisan like Bundy goes on and on about how much the federal government is evil, it never was just about the 10th Amendment or federalism, it was an argument about race, for as Bundy explained, the federal government is helping colored people at the expense of whites.

It is equally important to remember that there is a larger historic social context of endemic racism that despite victories such as the Civil Rights Act and now largely hollowed out Voting Rights Act,

continues to permeate daily life in high places and for ordinary citizens in America. We should not bracket Sterling’s action but rather place it in the larger context: Sterling’s racism took place in a culture that allowed him for years to act shamefully with impunity. It took place in a culture that has permitted relentless racist attacks, overt, and covert on President Barak Obama.

Some of these are overt, but usually, people know that racism is no longer polite to speak about, and it has gone underground, is hidden, and has curdled, and has developed several layers of plausible deniability, so that when some Obama hater is accused of racism, the standard reply is, “I’m not a racist, you are, for still thinking in racialized categories. Its time for you to stop riding that hobby-horse.” Donald Sterling has exposed this as a lie.

Racism is in the air that we all breathe. Racism is as common as the grains of sand in a playground or on a beach. Several years ago Ayala was at a local museum with minority, inner city students who participated in a program at the university of Rochester (Seeds for College Foundation). She was familiar with the museum. In a matter of seconds people descended on her group, queried the students, following them everywhere. When she approached and asked if there was a problem, a woman asked her in an indignant voice if she was with “these kids.” It was clear to her friend, a local artist who joined us for the tour, and to Ayala why the students were followed. When the students saw that Ayala was angry one of them came over, put an arm around her and said, “Don’t be upset. We are used to it, it happens all the time.” Black people learn early about the reality “the stare.”

Peter moved about a year and a half ago from Rochester to South Carolina, in the deepest corner of the deep South. Everyone’s response was the same—South Carolina, that racist redneck peckerwood backwater—poor you, how will you survive? Peter will not offer any defense of South Carolina and its miserable reactionary politics, but people who live the greater Rochester area, a metropolitan area with rigid racial divisions between the city and suburbs, a failing school system, and a vast divide between rich and poor, white and black, ought not to be throwing stones at anyone else’s house.

The NBA action against Sterling brings attention to the context in which large and regular racism operates. This is its moment. It requires of all of us to continue and pay attention to overt and covert racism so that our children, all our children will not have to say about racism, “we are used to it.”