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Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, and What People are “Given”

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It’s 2014, and yet our news cycle seems to be currently dominated by a pair of unreconstructed racists. We’ll get to them in just a second. What their rhetoric most reminds us of, though, is a Racist In The News from the distant past: 2013.

Let’s travel back in time to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2013, to its panel on minority outreach and “how to speak to minority groups,” such as African Americans, who tend to have few positive feelings towards the Grand Old Party. Fortunately for the reporters from liberal outlets attending the session in hope of catching a flashy quote from a racist, a racist did indeed show up to offer a flashy quote. From Think Progress:

The exchange occurred after an audience member from North Carolina, 30-year-old Scott Terry, asked whether Republicans could endorse races remaining separate but equal. After the presenter, K. Carl Smith of Frederick Douglass Republicans, answered by referencing a letter by Frederick Douglass forgiving his former master, the audience member said “For what? For feeding him and housing him?” Several people in the audience cheered and applauded Terry’s outburst.

What a catch! A real-life hot-blooded racist, earnestly wondering aloud what a slave owner should have to feel sorry for. That benevolent fellow gave Frederick Douglass food and shelter! What, pray tell, was everyone’s problem?

Underlying a lot of racist talk is the idea that black people are always, no matter the circumstances, given things—money, opportunity, the right and the ability to live a normal life, and so forth. Let’s consider land-mooching rancher Cliven Bundy’s famous comments about “the Negro” from last week:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids—and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch—they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

There’s an incredible amount of bad information, and worse logic, going on in this rant. His version of history is pretty much the polar opposite of the truth. Slaveowners were in fact quite active in making sure that their slaves did not have “a family life” and other “things,” since dehumanization and destruction of the black body were central means of keeping the institution of slavery intact.

But even if Bundy’s rosy ideal version of slave life were true, there’s still the subtle implication here that everything slaves had were “given” to them. Their masters gave them the opportunity to work, by teaching them how to pick cotton, and also gave them the opportunity to have a well-rounded life outside of work. Now the government gives them money, but not the opportunity to work.

Which brings us to our other currently-relevant news-cycle racist, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling. Similarly, Sterling also believes that the (predominantly) African American men who produce the value of the asset he owns are given things, rather than earning them. In this case, they’re given things by him. Here’s Sterling talking to his then-girlfriend V. Stiviano, via Deadspin (emphasis mine):

V: I don’t understand, I don’t see your views. I wasn’t raised the way you were raised.

DS: Well then, if you don’t feel—don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.

V: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?

DS: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

This is the stubbornness of the racist mind on display—the persistent, poisonous belief that African-Americans, whether they’re enslaved, or simply poor, or else exceedingly financially successful, are necessarily, in every circumstance, “given” things—for which they should be grateful, because they wouldn’t have the wherewithal to get these things on their own.