Our Own Not-So-Sterling Record

After the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan State’s ban on affirmative action in college admissions — a decision largely based on the concept that racism is no longer a factor in our educational system, and, by implication, also not a motive among the electorate that votes such bans into law — the American media has been debating this issue. Is racism in America no longer a factor important enough to require laws to protect minorities and assure equal opportunity?

The scandals involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy couldn’t have been more timely. Both cases are prime examples of how racism is very much alive in the United States. Both men, who had gained prominence in the news prior to this week, suddenly became infamous for blurting out racist remarks.

While uttering a racially offensive remark is not proof of the prejudice or racial bias (anyone is capable of making such a gaff in a moment of anger, as exemplified by some of the reaction to Mr. Sterling I’ve heard from African Americans), it does arouse suspicion as to where the speaker’s heart might be. Repeating these remarks can only confirm this suspicion.

As a White man, I have known many cases where another White individual would use the “N” word in my presence, assuming that I would not object to it. Of these cases, the majority of them have been with gay individuals. Some have been with people I have worked with. I have been thinking about this issue for a while now — the concept that a gay man or woman would be a racist, while taking part and benefiting from what has been called “The Last Great Civil Rights Movement” — equal rights for LGBT Americans.

Of course, in the gay “world,” prejudice and offense are highly subjective. I can cite one man who, through the three years I worked for him, tolerated a much younger stud calling him a “Cheap Jew Bastard.” In front of the entire staff. That would have been offensive to me. The younger stud who called him that kept his job. One can only assume that the boss was getting something from him. Another employee, who did not have sexual relations with the boss, quoted the young stud’s remarks to a friend outside of the company. This got back to the boss. In firing him, the boss reportedly said, “In view of the fact that I’m paying you $20 an hour, I am going to have to let you go for the offensive remark,” suggesting that the offense was conditional on a particular amount of money.

If that is the case, then the word “cheap” would indeed have been an accurate des-cription. Here, we come to a difficulty in the language. Must we be polite in describing everyone at all times? If I said that Hitler was “Despicable Austrian Murderer,” would that be offensive to all Austrians, or just an accurate description of the man? Is a White (substitute “Black,” “Jewish,” “gay,” or whatever) man ever bad and deserving of contemptuous name-calling? And what type of language would be appropriate to descibe such a person?

This may be the time to talk about these things — while the rest of the country is addressing the issue. Of course racism exists among gays. We just don’t talk about it — or, at least not since James Baldwin died in 1987. We may want to get this out of the way before asking… demanding… that the country pass ENDA. What about our own record of discrimination?

Imagine my surprise, and delight, when a supposedly “fluff” and very sexy cable show, “Looking,” took on this very subject with an extremely intelligent script. Perhaps I’m not the only one thinking about this.


Photo of James Baldwin by Allan Warren