Here’s the thing about being post racial. If you have to announce to the world that you are no longer a racist, then you almost certainly still are.
It brings to mind the essential catch in Joseph Heller’s amazing novel about the insanity of military discipline in a time of war, Catch 22 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961):
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22… Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.”
Indeed, it is. Granted, the army may give you less leeway with your thoughts than your own conscience does, but that just means the responsibility is yours. You are your own chain of command.
As embattled NBA owner Donald Sterling will tell you, you can say you respect the players, you can say you respect one of the most beloved players in NBA history, Ervin “Magic” Johnson, but if you are saying it in an effort to disavow overtly racist statements, you’re still a racist. You’re just pretending you’re shocked by the charge. You may as well say, “Some of my best friends are n—–s,” because whether you think of them that way or not, the fact that you have to point out how tolerant you are shows you are as disconnected from your own honest feelings as you are from society’s.
Racism will die, as Haile Selassie said, in a 1963 speech to the United Nations, when “the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and totally discredited and abandoned.” It can be argued that, for a majority of Americans, it has at least been “discredited.” That goes for all races, one to another, all religions, one to another, all genders, one to another, all sexual orientations, one to another.
As for Sterling, rather than going to Barbara Walters and Anderson Cooper to plead for forgiveness and ask for a mulligan for an acute instance of chronically racist behavior, maybe he should have just apologized and declared he would do some introspecting, and try to get a better understanding of his own shortcomings. Instead, he blames others for misunderstanding him, and the way he really feels, and appears to be ready to refuse to follow the NBA commissioner’s edict, and take his case to the courts.
He could volunteer to undergo sensitivity training. The Miami Dolphins are sending Don Jones, one of their players, to sensitivity training for his unkind tweets following the intimate moment caught on camera between newly recruited, first openly gay NFL draftee Michael Sam and his boyfriend. Like drug rehab, sensitivity training requires acknowledging that one’s behavior is not just a “mistake.” It is wrong. Period.
Human rights require respect, but respect alone is not enough. America’s late night satirist-in-chief, Stephen Colbert, has an idiom about our country’s ethnic diversity. “I don’t see race,” he insists, and the audience laughs, because they don’t think that’s really possible, based on his rhetoric, and also because they understand how difficult a concept that can be, in this country.
The reason I like it is it implies that we can set aside our prejudices, and all the garbage we, as associating machines, ascribe to “the other.” It’s a great goal-post, one guaranteed not to move farther away as you gain on it, unless you let it. That really should be the commitment of the American experience. Out of many, one.