The racist words of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling have justifiably raised hackles across the land. In a sense, however, their blunt bigotry has allowed the nation the breathe a collective sigh of relief. It is so much easier and cheaper to discuss racism as something spewing from troglodytes like Bundy and Sterling, rather than talking about the much messier (and more damaging) institutional racism in this country. I am afraid that in the broad outcry against these two men we are rushing to avoid deeper questions.
In fact, these two men are both great illustrations of institutional racism at work, and that fact ought to be playing a bigger part in our discourse on them. In Sterling's case he had to pay the federal government a large settlement after being accused of striving to keep African Americans and Latinos from living in some of his housing developments. Residential segregation is sadly an old story in this country, and something that has helped contribute greatly to wealth disparities. As awful as Sterling's words were, his housing decisions were at least ten times more damaging and damning. And yet for some reason his behavior in this regard received a fraction of the media coverage that his ignorant tirades have garnered.
In Bundy's case the connection to institutional racism is less direct, but no less profound. Bundy is essentially claiming the right to graze his animals on federal land for free. Even if he actually bothered to pay the fees, he would be paying well below market rates, a huge giveaway for ranchers. Not only do we not refer to ranchers as "welfare queens," our media often plays them up as rugged individualists. The ranchers who benefit greatly from this system are overwhelmingly white, as are the farmers who rake in federal subsidies. Those facts are the result of the influence of white supremacist politicians on New Deal legislation back in the 1930s. I doubt a black man brandishing a gun at law enforcement officers in the cause of getting access to public land without paying would receive fawning media attention, either. Instead of being met with the praise of Fox News and the like, he would have a fusillade of hot lead to look forward to.
Bundy and Sterling aren't just unreconstructed bigots, they are both all too apt illustrations of the all-pervasive structural power of racism in this country. That subject, however, tends to make people (especially white people) uncomfortable, and it is certainly more divisive. When the supreme court struck a blow against affirmative action last week, public reaction was decidedly mixed, with mainstream conservative sources like Fox News praising the decision. These same outlets have been running as fast as they can from Cliven Bundy after his remarks, even though they made him into a media figure and exalted his defiance. His and Sterling's words are considered universally repugnant, but Sterling's racist business practices have barely registered. Isn't about time that we focus on racist actions over racist words?