Some people would call it bitterly ironic that the Supreme Court decided to uphold the state of Michigan’s ban on Affirmative Action just days before hearing Donald Sterlings’ racist, antebellum views on race relations in this country.
However, African-Americans and other minorities who experience professional racism on a daily basis would summarize these two happenings as chapter 1 in the book of “Such is life, if you happen to be anything but a white man in America.” Racist acts that make white mainstream folks react in shock evoke nothing more than a fatalistic yawn from most minorities.
We’ve seen our bosses wear Blackface, later to call it a harmless Halloween costume and not get fired. We’ve heard our White-but-think-they’re-down-with-Latinos-colleagues tell their Mexican co-workers to cut their grass during board meetings. And not get fired. We’ve also trained recent, White college graduates for months, only to see them get the plum managerial position we worked two years to position ourselves for—and then suddenly we’re fired because we had the audacity to complain about it.
The Donald Sterlings of the world are nothing new for us. If we had a tape recorder handy for all of the racist remarks we’ve heard from the mouths of our white colleagues and managers, we’d struggle to find enough civil rights lawyers to file discrimination lawsuits on behalf of us all.
Mainstream America, for the moment, has tapped Donald Sterling as racist bogie man Number 1; Minorities see him as the Bob, Jim, Sarah, and John we must report to each day, all the while maintaining our dignity. When SCOTUS voted to uphold Michigan’s ban on Affirmative Action, they also voted to empower a man who was forced to settle a lawsuit from Black and Latino tenants who claimed that he had refused to rent to them.
As a young, African-American reporter who has struggled to expand my professional network beyond my mostly-Black group of friends, I have run into many manifestations of Donald Sterlings in the media world. Needless to say, so have my Black colleagues.
I ran into a mini-Sterling several years ago while I was unemployed and pursuing a fulltime job in media. The company, I was told, was looking for a strong minority candidate because much of their work focused on—guess what?—minority media. Having returned from Ukraine where my journalism project focused on African Diasporas, two masters degrees in hand—one in Russian studies, with a focus on ethnic conflict, and the other in Journalism, also with a focus on minority issues–, and several years of freelance reporting experience in Black media, I believed I fit what the organization needed.
During the interview, one of the hiring managers went into a long talk about why diversity is so important to his organization. Mind you, I am a Black man from inner-city Detroit who spent the first twelve years of my life growing up in a crack house, only to go on to graduate school to earn a degree in Russian studies, and spend four years of my life in Eastern Europe—including two years in Georgia, Joseph Stalin’s homeland. So I hope you appreciate it when I say I really didn’t need this person’s lecture on diversity.
Anyway, it didn’t matter. I was told I wasn’t the “best fit.” Note to white people: when you say we’re not a “good fit,” that’s code for “we’re not comfortable with you.” A blue-eyed white woman, of course, ended up being the “better fit.”
I was told by someone on the hiring committee after the fact that some members thought I was “aggressive” and “intimidating.” “Aggressive” and “intimidating,” at least for me, were code for “scary, 6-foot-0 black man, with deep voice.”
I don’t have a single minority colleague who hasn’t had similar experiences.
Listen to Sterling recording below:
A Black female reporter colleague told me she struggled to find employment at small market TV stations because, in very few words, she was told that a station could only have one black female on staff at a time. Another black colleague of mine applied for the position of editor at a top New York magazine, and passed the take home editing tests, only to face awkward, uncomprehending silence from the hiring manager during her in-person interview.
(She told me she felt he was surprised that a Black woman would actually make it to the final part of the interview process!)
She was asked to take another editing test—which was not supposed to happen—and passed it with a perfect score. But it didn’t matter. She didn’t get the job. When she asked if there was anything she could have done better during the interview process, he told her, “There was nothing you could have done.”
This same woman said that during her first week as a lead editor at another job, her white colleagues reported her to management for being “aggressive.” There’s that word again: “Aggressive.” Minority men and women are accused of being this quite often. She was told her managerial duties would be taken from her until her white colleagues “learned to feel more comfortable around her.” Not only were her duties not returned, she was let go months later!
That editor who let her go may not have been an, “I don’t want black people coming to my games” racist, but he was most certainly an, “I don’t want a Black woman in my newsroom telling my white writers what to do” racist.
Like the Clippers players who have to step on the court to play for Sterling, minorities who face racism in corporate America are forced to suck it up and perform with as much dignity as possible–or quit and face chronic unemployment while dealing with mouths to feed at home.
Clippers stage silent protest:
However, when advocates bring up the need to support Affirmative Action laws that help to break down centuries-old structures of white hegemony (which Sterling typifies), they are dismissed as race-baiters—especially minorities. White people, however, tend not to be categorized so harshly.
Often, we see white men in positions of hiring power discuss the importance of ethnically diverse workplaces without having to be accountable for actually creating them. When white men discuss the injustice of the criminal justice system, for example, it becomes a national conversation. However, when minorities who are disproportionately affected by this “justice” system want to add our perspectives, we are accused of bitching, and, here’s my favorite, not working hard enough to overcome it.
It’s these kinds of experiences that make minorities view White people’s discussions on diversity as nothing more than a joke. Too many in mainstream America simply don’t understand that to end a racist system that was intentionally and systematically created to favor one race over the other, it must be intentionally and systematically destroyed so that it doesn’t.
As long as we continue to undo legislation such as Affirmative Action, bigots like Donald Sterling will thrive at the highest levels of corporate America, keeping minorities stuck in a perpetual state of economic inequity and professional non–advancement. In 2013 alone, the EEOC reported that it resolved a total of 97,252 private sector charges of discrimination in FY 2013. During that same year, the EEOC obtained a record $372.1 million in monetary relief for victims of private sector workplace discrimination, the highest level obtained in the organization’s history.
Watch Magic Johnson speak about Donald Sterling:
Unfortunately, $372 million isn’t nearly enough to punish effectively America’s racist, economic structure, which was built on a foundation of centuries of legalized chattel slavery. Moreover, the United States of America will never fully realize its promise as a land of equal opportunity, so long as we as a nation insist on fighting laws that were designed to eliminate hatred and racism, instead of focusing our attention on people like Sterling who—if the audio is verified–have been actually caught on tape spewing exactly that kind of hatred and racism.
In order for Americans of all colors and races to unite as one to fight racism, we must realize that, while today’s Americans did not create the racist system in which we work and live, we all are participating in it—whether we want to or not.
For example, in New York City, Black and Latino men can be stopped and frisked for nothing more than being Black and Latino men. That is our reality and we are prepped to live by the rules of that reality. It makes black and Latino parents look their teenage boys up and down before they can take a single step outside the door: pull your pants up; don’t wear you hat backwards; if the cops stop you, say, “Yes, sir. No, sir.”; Be careful who you’re walking with; don’t stand on the corner too long. Blacks and Latinos are taught that we are eligible to be objects of police discrimination and other forms of racism, regardless of whether it’s fair or not.
The disconnect in conversations about race in America is that, all too often, our fellow white Americans are not taught that they, too, have a shared accountability in helping to fight racism–whether they helped to create it or not. As minorities, our skin color makes us eligible to be victims of racism, just as the skin color of whites makes them eligible to enforce it—whether they actually choose to participate in it or not.
There were likely plenty of opportunities for Donald Sterling’s colleagues to check his racism at the door as he moved up in the corporate world. Instead, doors opened up for him until he was able to buy an NBA team, even as thousands of minority defendants in a lawsuit claimed that he shut his doors on them—literally.
Watch Shaq, Charles Barkley, discuss Donald Sterling:
If there is anything we can take from this unfortunate revelation of Sterling’s racist rant, it is this: the American people cannot afford to close the doors of dialogue on each other.
Diversity, in its current definition, is nothing more than the peppering of minority faces in a room full of white ones. Instead, it should be about, as Jelani Cobb wrote in “The New Yorker,” “dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.”
And most importantly, we have to stop creating hostile atmospheres where minorities who want to openly talk about racism fear for their positions because they will make their white colleagues—and minorities who, unfortunately, long for proximity to whiteness and the corner offices and titles that come with it—feel “uncomfortable.”
During a Twitter chat a week ago about my personal experiences with racism, a colleague of mine said I was a “brave ” for being so open about professional struggles. I appreciated her compliment, but I don’t think I’m nearly as brave as the Clippers players who stepped on to the court before thousands of Golden State Warriors fans at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, Calif., and millions more on national television, to stage a silent protest against an owner who was allegedly captured on audio reducing them to people whom, in his words, he “feeds and clothes.”
And even though Warriors fans wore Blue and Gold, they, for just a moment, stood in solidarity with the away team that donned red, white and blue.
If ordinary Americans could form the same solidarity to overcome racism on such a public stage, we wouldn’t need an NBA commissioner in Adam Silver to deal with Donald Sterling, or nine Supreme Court justices to help sort out what “reverse racism” is in regards to Affirmative Action. No, instead we’d police ourselves so that such racism and its exponents would never see the light of day.
My fellow Americans, this is the United States I envision, when I sing the Star Spangled Banner and belt out the final words, “and the home of the brave.”