Racism remains stoutly built-in to American culture; corporations and businesses and families, most of them, always have been prominently afflicted with the infection. Donald Sterling and his lifetime pattern of institutional racism represents nothing new in American life. His story is part of a larger stain on the American character, that can still be found easily, almost anywhere.
I suppose that some American, White, Senior Citizen, Male Retirees might have little direct experience of racism in this country. But I have seen a lot of it, close up, all of my life, both large scale and small. Follow me out into the tall grass for some of that story.
Mom was a flapper.
Mom's sheltered, suburban life rarely brought her into contact with people of color, except perhaps domestic servants and railroad porters. Then, during high school, she ran away from an abusive step-mother and drifted into a job as a hat check girl in a Chinese nightclub run by Tong gangsters. She hung out with Black jazz musicians and other entertainers. (OT: I'm pretty sure she smoked some pot with them. Anyway, I never heard her disparage the weed.) Paradoxically, Mom came away from that experience with a lifetime friendship with a Chinese restauranteur whom she came to know, but also with a repertoire of insensitive, ignorant and disparaging generalities and unfair stereotypes critical of Chinese people and culture that she would sometimes blurt out.
Just months after Mom ran away from home, the Great Depression kicked off with a spectacular economic collapse when a record high financial bubble burst on Wall Street. While the Roaring Twenties may have been a bit liberating for a girl on her own, that came at a price. Mom struggled through jobs as a waitress, a telephone operator and others. But it was tough to get along in a man's world during the Depression. Mom's two-prong strategy for that problem was serial marriage and beauty school. So, she married early and often and walked out whenever things turned against her liking. She did it with confidence, knowing she could support herself working in a beauty shop. Unsurprisingly, her sisters largely disapproved of Mom's matrimonial wandering. Mom's last (also 2nd) husband was this guy, my step-father, seen here way back when:
My step-father grew up the only son of a disabled railroad worker on a small pension. His mother was a cook and household servant in the mansion of one the richest families in a large city. His first jobs were caddying at country clubs, repairing their limos and roadsters and chauffeuring for the elite. His world encouraged him to see African-Americans as economic competitors who needed to be constrained by a strong caste system. Thus, a wealthy household would employ a Black porter to clean and wash the car, but only allow a White man to repair and drive it. In the factory where he worked when I was growing up, African-Americans worked only in packing and shipping jobs, considered unskilled and paid less. All of the men on the assembly line were White, considered skilled, and paid more. He liked it that way.
My father came by his racism even more naturally, growing up as one of ten children on a small, rural North Carolina tobacco farm. His line traces back to a Spanish immigrant in 1837 and there is census data suggesting that the family may have held at least one African-American slave before Reconstruction. No doubt individuals could come from exactly this kind of background and famiiy without bearing the stain of racism, but I don't think that my father did. I'm pretty sure he bore the stain big time.
I got to know many in his family, some very well. The very best known to me was my father's youngest brother, pictured here with my aunt, whom he met and married during World War II.
The good news is that all of those people are dead. They were all horribly racist, or at least tolerant of it. Except maybe Mom, any of them would fit right into the modern GOP on race and find nothing exceptional in the views of Donald Sterling. But that is not me, or my brother or my wife or his. It is not his son or my daughters.
It was the stain of racism in our people and our families that went on to stain America's economic and cultural institutions. The demographic cadres most heavily marked with that particular stain are dying out in America. Over time, a process will hopefully occur reducing institutional racism as tolerance of diversity and indifference to race increasingly becomes the rule for ourselves.
Since the beginning. racism and the myriad problems it has spawned have dominated most of American politics. I dream of the day when we move beyond race and our political factions reorient around economic justice. Then, democracy might stand a chance.