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Unveiling subconscious discrimination

Melvin B. Miller | 5/14/2014, 10:38 a.m.
Reasonable Americans would agree that racist behavior is undesirable. However, some people are unable to perceive the discriminatory nature of ...
“I don’t know why the minorities blame us for their inability to become corporate CEOs and join the 1 percent.” Dan Drew

Reasonable Americans would agree that racist behavior is undesirable. However, some people are unable to perceive the discriminatory nature of their own conduct. Observers must wonder what drives such pernicious behavior, especially in financially successful people like Donald Sterling.

Less publicized sections of the transcript of the remarks by Donald Sterling, the owner of the Clippers basketball team, indicate a subconsciously racist attitude toward blacks. His response is profoundly racist to V. Stiviano’s question “do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?”

Sterling answered, “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 a lucid expression of a plantation mentality. There are 30 teams in the National Basketball Association and no team can carry more than 15 players. So the athletes that Sterling dismissively refers to are among the 450 best in the nation, and they average multi-million dollar annual salaries. In his remarks, he shows them little respect, as though they go out every day to pick cotton. It is unlikely that he would ever speak of white male professionals in the same way.

In a perceptive analysis in the Boston Globe entitled “Becoming White,” Farah Stockman indicated how Sterling might have been motivated to elevate his social status by erasing the fact that he was a product of Boyle Heights, a poor section of East Los Angeles. He even changed his name from Tokowitz to Sterling in order to become a gentile with nothing more than the magic of the stroke of a pen.

Sterling knows that there is an advantage in being perceived as white. Even Cliven Bundy, the Arizona rancher knows that. When he started getting bad press for failing to pay the fees to graze his cattle on federal land, Bundy gratuitously brought up the subject of African Americans. Blacks had nothing at all to do with his dispute with the feds. So why did Bundy raise the issue?

Perhaps the blundering Bundy wanted to remind the public that he is still entitled to the privilege of being a white man in America. Some would argue that there is no such privilege but Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues conducted a study that established some evidence of white male privilege. They found that women and minorities are at a disadvantage in getting college professors to meet to discuss research opportunities for grad school. Race and gender are their impediments.

Researchers sent fake identical e-mails to 6,548 professors at 259 U.S. institutions. The only change in the e-mails was the names of the senders that identified them as white, black or female. For example “Steven Smith” would be white male and “Latoya Brown” would be black female. The e-mails were sent to professors in 89 academic disciplines.

According to Milkman, there was a 25 percent gap in the rate of responses to males with Caucasian sounding names than to women and minorities. Only in the area of fine arts was that statistic reversed. More than likely, decisions about whether to respond were made without an active intention to discriminate.

There might well be an unspoken convention of white privilege in America. One remedy for such a racist custom would be to continue the practice of affirmative action to raise the level of awareness of inadvertent racial discrimination. Under America’s commitment to fair play the principle of equality should prevail.