Linda Chavez

Racism is ugly, no matter who is spewing it. But there does seem to be a double standard when it comes to public outrage on the subject.

It was less than a week after LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist comments to his girlfriend in a private conversation became public that he was banned for life from NBA games and venues, fined $2.5 million, and on the verge of being forced to sell his team. But when a Democratic congressman engages in racist, public name-calling of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the reaction is muted at best.

First, let's be clear: What Sterling did was offensive and hurtful, and the man is clearly a repulsive character. But what was most shocking about the incident was how quickly the NBA moved to punish Sterling for uttering his prejudices in a private conversation, when the league earlier had ignored that Sterling engaged in actual illegal housing discrimination. In 2009, Sterling settled a suit with the Department of Justice, paying a nearly $3 million fine, the largest in history for federal housing discrimination.

The precedent seems a dangerous one to me, not to mention hypocritical. However toxic Sterling's views -- and they are -- is it worse to reveal prejudiced sentiments to an intimate partner than it is to refuse to rent to individuals on the basis of the color of their skin? And what about forcing black and Hispanic tenants to live in dangerous, unsanitary buildings by refusing to make necessary repairs? But the NBA treated the former as a hanging offense and turned a blind eye to Sterling's egregious flouting of federal law.

But if the NBA is guilty of hypocrisy, what about the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which awarded Sterling its Humanitarian Award in 2008 and its President's Award in 2009 -- despite Sterling's record of housing discrimination? That raises the double standard at play in another ugly example of racial prejudice.

Last week, Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. Bennie Thompson hurled a racial epithet at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the radio, but his comments barely raised an eyebrow. Apparently a member of Congress calling Thomas an "Uncle Tom" -- and doing so on a program sponsored by the New Nation of Islam, no less -- is acceptable. And Thompson didn't leave it at that. When asked about his comments in an interview on CNN, Thompson doubled down, telling reporter Dana Bash that it's OK for him to use the term because he's black. Yet no one is suggesting that his colleagues reprimand Thompson for his clearly racist remarks.


Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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