Over the past year in supposedly post-racial America, we have seen some glaring examples of racist viewpoints running the gamut from an elderly billionaire like former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling secretly recorded telling his then-mistress not to bring black people to his games, to college-age youngsters in the University of Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity engaged in a racist sing-along on a bus. These repulsive displays of bigotry caused outrage among many Americans, and rightfully so.
However, while reading Facebook comments pertaining to the recorded chants of the SAE members proclaiming that “there will never be a n____” among their brothers, I came across a critical observation made from a former colleague regarding how American society and the media treat examples of racist attitudes from individuals versus institutional racism, as well as the consequences (or lack thereof) that come along with them.
The “bus o’ bigotry” incident of SAE led to the University of Oklahoma launching an immediate investigation into whether the people in the video are actually students from the university, and threatening to kick the fraternity off the campus if that were the case. That didn’t matter, though. The chapter was promptly shut down by SAE leadership anyway. Donald Sterling was forced by the NBA to sell the Clippers, and received a lifetime ban from the league. All in all, fairly clear indicators that such blatant displays of racism are not going to be tolerated and are unwelcome is today’s America.
Yet, there were also recent examples of both individual and institutional racism that didn’t seem to ignite as much of a response from the American public as the ones mentioned above, nor did they have immediate consequences that were as severe. At least not for the institutional part.
The U.S. Department of Justice released a report weeks ago, highly critical of the Ferguson police department and court system for its use of racial bias in policing. Data was compiled for months, which indicated higher incidences of the use of force with blacks, as well as other practices deemed unconstitutional. Racist emails that had been circulated among officers in the department and others in the city’s court system were also found in the probe. Those emails led to two police officers resigning and a city clerk being fired.
But it wasn’t until weeks after the announcement of the investigation’s findings that the Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson, finally voluntarily resigned. There hadn’t been widespread condemnation and outrage directed at Jackson or the Ferguson police force for the findings of the DOJ. At least nothing that could compare to the beatings that Sterling and the SAE bus bigots received in the media and online. It is frustrating how, in America, what a person says seems to carry more weight than what a person actually does. There are even racism deniers, such as the conservative, corporate-mouthpiece hosts of Red Eye Radio, Gary McNamara and Eric Harley, who assert that institutional racism just doesn’t exist anymore.
Just as there are surely more than a couple of individuals across the country that share the same repugnant attitudes of Donald Sterling or the former SAE frat boys, we can’t sit back and pretend that the Ferguson police department is the only American institution that is plagued by racism and discrimination. And when it is demonstrated that institutional racism exists, there should be just as much, if not more, outrage directed at said institutions from the public. Because it is this type of racism that has severe real-world implications and effects. We can’t help what some individuals or groups of people may think of other races, but we can and should do our best to ensure that the institutions meant to serve all Americans do so in a fair and just manner.
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