In all the fury about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's ugly comments, and in all the backslapping about the NBA's unprecedented sanctions, very little has been said about the uncomfortable truth of the matter: Donald Sterling is hardly the only American whose vision isn't colorblind.
Sterling's "crime", of course, was being caught on tape saying the sorts of things that make many of us uncomfortable. Most people, no matter what they really think, have learned that there are some things you just don't say where it can come back to haunt you. But just because folks don't say these things, do you think they don't believe them?
LaSalle University professor Charles Gallagher chairs his school's sociology department and teaches the subject. In a KCBS interview today, he told us about a fascinating and revealing assignment he gives his students. He asks them to spend three weeks noting everything their friends, roommates, teammates, dorm acquaintances, and family members say about race and ethnicity.
Most of what Gallagher's students hear isn't coming from 80-year-old billionaire white guys. It's coming from young, educated Americans. But a lot of it isn't that different from what Sterling said. The real difference: their comments are being made in the context of a confidential, private relationship. The people saying these things are comfortable with the person to whom they're saying them.
In other words: just like Sterling, who didn't call a news conference or issue a press release requesting he see fewer black people in his inner circle. Instead, he made the comment in a private conversation with an intimate friend--a "safe" place that didn't work out so well for Sterling.
Whether you're white, black, Asian, Hispanic or something else, the stark reality is you probably hold beliefs or feelings about race and ethnicity that, if exposed to international scrutiny, might not pass the Sterling test. You're probably aware enough not to blurt them out in a meeting at the office or post them on Facebook.
Ten years ago, Paul Haggis' movie "Crash" won the Best Picture Academy Award. It delved into questions of race and ethnicity in a Los Angeles sliced and diced into enclaves. Many of Haggis' characters glibly dropped the kinds of comments that could get an NBA owner in trouble. Whatever you thought of the film, it opened a conversation about racial attitudes.
Clearly, that conversation hasn't ended. And as Charles Gallagher's students are learning, there are no magic wands you can wave to change what people say and think when they're out of the spotlight.