America has just had its jolting Michael Corleone moment.
In the third and least successful Godfather movie, bigwig crime boss Michael Corleone, who spent years trying to get his “family” into legitimate businesses, says: “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” He’s sucked back into the overtly criminal practices of his family’s sordid past, and in the end he pays a huge price.
And so it goes in the 21st century where two manifestations of the worst instinct and operative practice in American life were in full, raw, display -- complete with their defenders and enablers. Both seem to have gotten comeuppances. For now.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s innermost feelings about blacks in general, and the black ball players who helped enrich him, were exposed in a recording secretly made by his then-girlfriend. He managed to bring together President Barack Obama and Texas. Sen. Ted Cruz in a bonding of revulsion, and transformed the NBA’s new commissioner Aaron Silver into a hero, after Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life and slapped him with a $2.5 million fine. Silver’s action came as NBA players made it clear they would not tolerate or associate with a race-hating club owner.
Earlier, Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy become a hero to conservative Republicans due to his dispute with the federal government in refusing to pay grazing fees -- despite his threat of using violence against feds if they showed up to enforce the law and a supporter saying they would have used women as human shields. Fox News constantly covered the story. The execrable Sean Hannity all but dressed in a cheerleader’s costume with printed “BUNDY!” letters, jumping and up and down with pompoms. But when Bundy turned out to be a racist who wondered whether blacks were “better off” under slavery, conservatives jumped ship and Fox News suddenly decided Bundy was a non-story. Hannity offered a repudiation that tried to change the subject by attacking Democrats.
Outright racism, “dog whistle” code words, and stereotypical assumptions are alive and well in the 21st century. Veteran journalist Greg Gross created an award-winning blog “I’m Black and I Travel!” due to assumptions he encountered that African-Americans don’t travel much and, he says, “to encourage African-Americans in particular to lose their fear of travel, especially international travel.”
Gross notes that when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts became law and Obama was elected President, some felt American racism was on the wane or finished.
“In both cases, it was desperately wishful thinking, “ Gross notes. “Racism is not mindless hate of people of other races; that’s bigotry. Racism is a social tool to maintain one group of people in a position of economic, political and social advantage over another. It persists because there are too many Americans who can’t bring themselves to give up that advantage, and mean to hand it down to their offspring. Racism is America’s drug of choice. The struggle of this society to rid itself of the addiction is nowhere near over, and its success is not guaranteed.”
Indeed, a smelly blend of ideological and partisan politics marinated in racism and demagoguery gets strong traction in our 24/7 news cycle increasingly influenced by social media. It allows those who may feel Sterling shouldn’t have been severely punished, or punished at all, to turn him and Bundy into victims of conspiracies and downplay our society’s real victims: the Americans often denigrated by racists, and by political entertainment demagogues who use minority groups as wedge issues to get audience share.
The question is whether Bundy and Sterling have pulled America totally back in, or whether the repudiation they sparked and the large number of people now shunning them mark a new era where racism -- its practitioners and those who enable them -- is no longer tolerated, and is rejected with the same dogged determination as bigots show in their bigotry.
As Gross puts it: “America’s addiction to racism is not unlike any other addiction. You can’t overcome it by denying it, defending it, or looking for excuses to continue it.”
It’s time for America to make bigots an offer they can’t refuse.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week’s online edition. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joegandelman