April 26, 2014

Before Cliven Bundy, there was Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote one of the most personal and scathing dissents I've ever seen come from the United States Supreme Court in response to the Court's decision to uphold Michigan's constitutional amendment banning universities from factoring race into admissions decisions.

Sotomayor challenged the myth of a post-racial America, and contradicted Chief Justice Roberts' 2007 declaration that "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Justice Sotomayor countered Roberts with a truism of her own. She wrote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination."

Justice Sotomayor went on to outline what discrimination means to those discriminated against in a personal and passionate voice.

"And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man's view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?’, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’ ”

Enter Cliven Bundy

The very next day, Cliven Bundy's remarks about "the Negroes" surfaced. It came as no surprise to anyone with even the most superficial familiarity with militias to discover he was a racist, but this was the first time he had confirmed it. Reacting to the backlash in real time, Bundy then expanded on his remarks over the next two days, exacerbating what was already an awkward situation for conservatives who embraced him when he was stirring up the base in ways that garnered their approval.

Thus began the "if we just don't make race an issue, it won't be an issue" dance. As long as Cliven Bundy kept his racial views to himself, he could be a hero, but the minute he gave away the companion views to anti-government sovereign movement views, they stepped back as quickly as their feet could carry them.

Like lightning, conservatives all stepped up and denounced his comments. With righteous indignation, either via spokesmen or on Fox News, they stood up and rejected his views out of hand.

All show and no go

Slow clap. Condemnation is the easy road, really. Stepping up to the mic and pointing a finger while calling another person's comments racist is a pretty painless way to appear as though one isn't racist. Stepping up to the mic and having an honest conversation about race and racist policies is more difficult. That's the conversation we're not having.

It would be easier to accept their passionate denunciations if they didn't actually support policies affirming Bundy's thesis; that is, government assistance to minorities is worse than slavery. On a daily basis, they stand by that theory. Unequal education, cuts to public assistance programs, voter suppression, shaming poor people and calling them lazy are all symptoms of the same malaise that infects Bundy.

If they were honestly ashamed of Bundy, they should also be ashamed of themselves. And if we're going to actually move forward, it seems to me we all need to be more honest about how we deal with race issues. Right now, race is treated as a series of knee-jerk politically correct or incorrect gestures. Support, Denounce, Condemn, Deny, but don't dare Do.

Denunciation or action?

It seems to me one of the reasons race continues to be an issue is because people are deluded into thinking if they say or don't say certain things, they are not a racist. But the doing matters. It's all fine and well for Rand Paul to say he's not racist and for him to condemn Bundy, but he still promotes policies that do grave harm to people of color.

Which proves the absence or presence of racism? Voting for voter suppression policies or issuing a politically correct denunciation of another's clearly racist remarks?

I'll give Cliven Bundy this much: He may deny he's a racist, but he will at least try to have a conversation about it. It's not a conversation that's coherent or particularly helpful, but it is at least a conversation. Now imagine if we were to take the lessons from that conversation and apply them in a rational way, starting by promoting policies to repair the damage done from centuries of oppression. Lose the fear and bias and actually open ourselves up to the possibility that changing our collective privileged attitudes and behavior is the first step toward achieving true equality. That might be an action item that makes a difference. More light, less heat.

It's not enough for Bundy to produce his black bodyguard and tell the world he's got at least one black friend. It's also not enough for white people and politicians to say they aren't racists without doing something about it. Whether it's fighting for voting equality or opportunity equality, if all we throw at it is words and outrage at someone's else's words, we're not much better than the bigots.

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