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.
Directing racial slurs at blacks if they happen to be conservative has no consequences. No one gets ostracized. Apologies don't follow. And those with exquisite racial sensibilities see no problem in calling Thomas an "Uncle Tom" or depicting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a self-proclaimed "house n*gga," as cartoonist Ted Rall did in 2004.
The selective outrage is troubling. If a private organization decides it wants to exclude a racist from its midst, that is its right. But wouldn't it be good if we condemned racism in all its forms?
Arguably, we ought to hold members of Congress to higher standards than we do private individuals. When former GOP Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott praised his colleague Sen. Strom Thurmond's presidential candidacy on a pro-segregationist ticket, he was forced to resign his leadership post in 2002 -- as I believed he should do and stated so at the time. Thompson should be held to the same standard. The congressman -- like Sterling -- can say what he wants, but his colleagues should shun him.
If we're serious about abhorring racism, let's at least be consistent. Selective outrage undermines the legitimacy of our sentiments.