WASHINGTON — Let’s not pretend that deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy and basketball team owner Donald Sterling are the last two racists in America. They have company.
I hear regularly from proud racists who send me — anonymously — some of the vilest and most hateful correspondence you could imagine. You’ll have to trust me about the content; this stuff, mostly vulgar racial insults directed at President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, is too disgusting to repeat. My sensibilities are not delicate. I grew up in South Carolina as the civil rights movement reached its climax, a place and time where racism was open, unambiguous and often violent. I would be the last person to deny that we’ve made tremendous progress against discrimination. But it is obvious that we have miles to go.
Attorney General Eric Holder was harshly criticized five years ago when he said we are “essentially a nation of cowards” in our reluctance to confront the racial issues that remain. In retrospect, Holder was merely telling a truth that many still will not acknowledge.
Bundy’s hideous assessment of “the Negro” — he wondered whether African-Americans were better off as slaves, picking cotton, than today — should have come as no shock. A Nevada rancher who refuses to pay for grazing his cattle on federal land, Bundy belongs to the far-right, anti-government fringe. I’m talking about the kind of people who deny the government has any legitimacy and expect black helicopters to land any minute. This worldview has found a home in the tea party movement, which harbors — let’s be honest — a racist strain.
This is not to say that all or most tea party adherents share Bundy’s ugly prejudices. But it has been obvious since the movement emerged that some tea partyers do. Media-savvy leaders eventually convinced those attending rallies to leave the racist placards at home, but such discretion says nothing about what remains in those people’s hearts and minds.
Racist words from Donald Sterling, a real estate mogul who owns the Los Angeles Clippers, also should have been less than surprising. In 2009, Sterling agreed to pay $2.73 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit alleging discrimination against African-American and Latino tenants in his apartment buildings. In an earlier discrimination suit, settled for an undisclosed sum, one of his property managers quoted Sterling as saying of black tenants in general that “they smell, they’re not clean.”
Still, the recording of the alleged conversation between the 80-year-old Sterling — there has been no denial that it’s his voice — and his young girlfriend dominated the weekend’s news, perhaps because it was not only racist but truly weird.
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the voice believed to be Sterling’s says to V. Stiviano — who is of mixed African-American and Mexican heritage.
Sterling apparently believes that since Stiviano is light-skinned and has straight hair, no one has to know that she is part black — if only she would stop posting photos of herself with African-Americans, such as basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, on Instagram. He instructs her not to bring Johnson to Clippers games.
Throughout the recorded conversation, which was obtained by TMZ.com, Sterling is unable to grasp why a black woman might resist his demand that she not be photographed with other black people. He apparently views racial segregation, at least in public, as the way things still ought to be.
Sterling’s racism has the NBA in an uproar — understandably, given that nearly 80 percent of the league’s players are black. Even Obama, in Asia, felt the need to comment on what he called Sterling’s “incredibly offensive racist statements.” He said Sterling was advertising his “ignorance.”
But something more sinister than cluelessness was involved. Sterling made clear in the conversation with Stiviano that African-Americans were unwelcome in his “culture.” This is old-fashioned “separate-but-equal” racism, pure and simple.
The Republican Party, Fox News and a majority of the Supreme Court would like to believe such naked prejudice is history. Yet some big-city school systems are as segregated as they were in the 1960s. Leading public universities are admitting fewer black students than a decade ago. The black-white wealth gap has grown in recent years. Blacks are no more likely than whites to use illegal drugs, yet four times more likely to be arrested and jailed for it.
No, racism isn’t back. It never went away.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.