Only a story about race, sex and money could have displaced from the headlines the sabre rattling from the United States, the European Union, and Russia that had, for weeks, promised a bloodbath in Ukraine and kept everybody in fear of World War III. That’s not all. There was also race and death: specifically, a botched double execution in Oklahoma on the evening of Tuesday April 29, 2014 that killed 38-year-old Clayton Lockett of a heart attack after more than 40 agonizing minutes, and the postponed execution of 46-year-old Charles Warner, who was scheduled to have been killed two hours later in the same room. Although Warner has maintained his innocence for the last 15 years, he too will probably be killed in two weeks. It is hardly a coincidence that both Lockett and Warner are poor and black. After all, the death penalty in the US is well known be mired in race and class prejudice. To Americans who insatiably crave prurient peeks into the lives of the rich, however, race and sex trump race and death, any time.
The discourse this time on race, which has received inputs from numerous people including the President of the United States, is about a racist rant by Donald Sterling, privately addressed to and recorded by his honey — she does call him “honey” on tape, and he threatens to replace her — Vanessa Stiviano. According to news reports, 80-year-old Sterling, although legally married, had been separated from his wife for years. Likewise, Ms. Stiviano was also single and over 21 (by about 10 years). Therefore their affair, if there was one, should have been nobody else’s business. Quite apart from Mr. Sterling’s admonitions to his honey not to appear in public with black men, which on the surface seems to be the cause of the hoopla, we’ve also learned that he is Jewish and has changed his name from Donald Tokowitz to appear more gentile. Likewise, Stiviano, who is a hispanic-black, has changed her name from Maria Perez, and probably also her nose, to appear more Italian. Evidently, in the US, Donald Sterling, but not Donald Tokowitz, gets to own a basketball club. Likewise, Vanessa Stiviano, but not Maria Perez, gets to be an archivist. Thus Tokowitz and Perez seemed to be ideally suited to each other, at least in their self-hatred and desire to get ahead.
No one has asked why an attractive young woman in her thirties with the kinds of looks that most American women envy, would chose to make her living by being psychologically battered by an aged man whom she obviously did not love. After all, it appears that she recorded their conversations as an insurance policy. Could it be that she is afraid to become Maria Perez the receptionist, cook, or janitor? Americans, who have a rather short memory, have already forgotten the spectacle of O. J. Simpson’s arrogance in the face of accusations of having physically and psychologically battered his wife. Nicole Simpson too was the sort of woman one expected to have everything, but she had nothing but humiliation and a terror of her husband’s SUV. In the end, she lost her life because she had either knowingly or unknowingly accepted her lot as being a thing: a decoration to be privately controlled and publicly displayed. Young women, who are most likely to feel flattered by the fuss of male predators looking for something to buy, should beware that a decoration is not regarded as a living willful thing but rather something to be smashed if it should misbehave.
In the US, working-class men are considered to have hit the jackpot by becoming professional athletes and women by becoming objectified by very rich men. This happens to very few people. The rest watch, not with disgust that much productive work is held in low regard, but with envy. This allure of easy money is well described by John Steinbeck about communists of his days in his statement: “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
So we get countless commentaries about Sterling and Stiviano. Sterling is banned from attending the games of his own basketball club; his advertisers take flight; his team wears its jerseys inside out as an anti-racist statement; black protesters appear at Clippers’ games; cartoons of Sterling show him with a brown mammy on one arm and black slaves on the other to remind us of the country’s colonial history, as if a racial slur could ever be more damaging than losing one’s life for reasons of class and race.
Finally, we learn that Magic Johnson, a retired basketball player worth about $500 million is the person most likely to buy the ball club. The athletes and fans welcome this, as if the transfer of wealth from one rich man to another should make everything all right as long as one of them is black. As black as Mr. Johnson might be, he has certainly had nothing to say about Clayton Lockett’s execution; however, to expect him to do so would in itself be racist. He is quite entitled to think of himself principally as a ball player and a rich man.
On the other hand, one might expect Mr. Obama, the supposed post-racial President of the entire US population, to bring something important to the issue of Lockett’s execution. The President, however, had nothing directly to say about Clayton Lockett but conveyed through his spokesman Jay Carney that although the death penalty does nothing to deter crimes, some crimes are so heinous they deserve the death penalty. This, right after the release of a study that found more than four percent of death-row inmates to be innocent. On the issue of Sterling, Mr. Obama was more forceful. He referred to Sterling’s rants as being “incredibly offensive racist statements” and part a continuing legacy of slavery and discrimination.
Which one is the real legacy of slavery and discrimination? A racial slur spoken in private by a rich man who wants to dominate a young woman, the imprisonment and disenfranchisement of one out of nine African-American men, or the long-term incarceration of a man followed by a publicly botched execution? In the US, the non-racists were those in the mixed-raced group who quietly protested against the Oklahoma execution on the evening of Tuesday, April 29, 2014.
Racism is a nasty, unpredictable disease. It can seem dormant for a long while, but then it can flare up at any moment like the worst kind of collective affliction. The private racist rants of Donald Sterling do indeed belong to the US’ dysfunctional social makeup. It is a society where the great majority of blacks, whites, and latinos are racist. Some have learned to hide their racism with appropriate language; others feel that their darker skin color gives them permission to express their prejudices. How many could stand to share with the public their private rants about race, spoken without knowing that they were being recorded? The healing of racial rifts that the Obama era was supposed to bring about has turned out to be a thin veneer on the decrepit plantation built by African-American slaves and now maintained by exploited men and women of all races.
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