Good news in Sterling, Bundy racial rants? Could be.

Believe it or not, something good might arise from the racist swamp of recent news cycles – the crudeness evidenced in Donald Sterling’s taped comments on guilt by black association and Cliven Bundy’s musings on the benefits of enslavement for African Americans.

You could sense some beyond skin-deep soul searching in the remarks of National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday.  The NBA – protecting its brand and trying to lead, not follow, the news – banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Sterling for life, fined him $2.5 million and announced it is urging a forced sale of the team. It’s a disaster all right, shifting attention from exciting post-season action on the court.

V. Stiviano, left, and Donald Sterling watch the Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010. Sterling was banned for life from the NBA after the revelation of audio recording in which he made racially charged comments to Stiviano. (Danny Moloshok/AP)
V. Stiviano, left, and Donald Sterling at a Clippers-Lakers  game in Los Angeles. Sterling was banned for life from the NBA after the revelation of audio recording in which he made racially charged comments to Stiviano. (Danny Moloshok/AP)

“Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural, multiethnic league,” said Silver in a statement that, while admirable, simplifies power relationships among players and coaches, owners and fans that are complicated in an America that still has problems honestly confronting its racial history.

Whenever the weary chide me at a mere mention of the lingering legacy of racism, I tell them the truth: I never think about race unless I’m reminded of it — and I’m reminded of it all the time. No explanation has been needed recently, as Sterling and Bundy have proven my point quite nicely — or not so nicely. Their rants have the country talking about race, and unlike in the cases of young black men deemed suspicious and shot dead, all sides of the discussion seem to be in agreement.

You don’t want your girlfriend/archivist/whatever – a person of mixed race – associating with black people, even those who have helped you make hundreds of millions of dollars? That’s bad.

You think black people were better off when they were enslaved, owned by other people who could beat, maim and rape them at will and sell off their children and family members? That’s very bad.

It’s a shame that it took statements that bold to reach a consensus. Bundy’s self-proclaimed non-recognition of the federal government as he and his cattle mooched off its lands — taxpayer lands — and the gun-toting protectors his ranch attracted were not enough. Lawsuits alleging Sterling discriminated against African Americans and Hispanics in housing he owned, his reported noxious comments about his tenants and the multimillion-dollar settlements he paid caused little public rebuke.

Perhaps now the country can move on, starting with very small steps.

Can we finally agree that anyone who broaches the subject of racial discrimination in America, to discuss overt vicious acts or the inequalities that exist, for example, in health, education, and economic policies is not playing the “race card”? Banish the phrase and throw the deck away.

At some point, talking about racism was equated with actual racism. Exhaustion set in, especially after America elected Barack Obama, an African American, to the country’s highest office. Enough already, problems solved, was the post Election Day story line. America is truly a “post-racial” paradise. Let’s pat ourselves on our multicultural backs and move on.

But there was little empathy with those who had a legitimate right to be exhausted, the ones living the effects of discrimination, who could not just visit the topic in cocktail party chit-chat and then put it away or change the subject. Among that group, the description “post racial” was seldom used, except derisively.

Indeed, in the wake of President Obama’s election, the number of hate groups rose, according to Southern Poverty Law Center investigations. That didn’t mean that opposition to administration policies were rooted in race. Yet all too often, disagreement turned to disrespect and personal insult toward the president and his wife, both Ivy League educated, and their two well-behaved and picture-perfect children.

That’s why the clarity of Bundy’s and Sterling’s unadulterated bile was refreshing in its way. There was no need to intuit racist intent or decipher “dog whistle” code words. Rants cannot be finessed or media-managed.

This wasn’t Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the 47 percent of government “takers” or his GOP running mate Rep. Paul Ryan’s condemnation of “inner city” culture that discourages work. (Ryan’s words were close enough to the line that he planned to meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to clear the air.)

When Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor used her dissent in the recent decision upholding the ban on the University of Michigan’s consideration of race in admissions to explain why race does indeed still matter, her logic was questioned. Now, she can just let Chief Justice John Roberts read the front page over her shoulder.

Will Bundy’s nostalgic “wondering” finally put an end to politicians comparing everything from the federal debt to the Affordable Care Act to slavery? The award-winning film “12 Years a Slave,” the true-life narrative of brutality and survival against all odds, could not make a dent in the facile equation. The stampede of the Bundy-loving pundits and elected officials away from the rancher should think twice before again bringing up anything related to cotton picking. That is my hope, anyway.

But in a world where the Duck Dynasty clan, led by apologists for a South ruled by terrorism and lynch law, still broadcasts its antics on cable television and this week’s scandals become last week’s old news, I remain skeptical.

Substantive talk on policies that advance this country’s promise of equality is what I wish for, maybe a discussion on the fairness of Ryan’s proposed budget and how it affects all Americans. A semantic shift is what I expect now that the reality is on display, too raw for anyone to miss or use for partisan advantage.

At the very least, maybe the next person who takes up Attorney General Eric Holder’s challenge to not be a coward when it comes to dealing with the legacy of one of America’s greatest sins will not be accused of playing, well, you know.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.
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