The news cycle is hot with racism. The Donald Sterling lifetime ban has created ripples, with people anointing Adam Silver as a champion for Civil Rights and the ban being a “historic” moment for America.
Forgive me for my skepticism, but the ban of Donald Sterling has done very little to address the real issues at hand. A $2.5m fine for someone who is worth nearly two billion is barely a slap on the wrist. It’s akin to financial institutions like Goldman Sachs being fined a hundred million for market manipulation, or British Petroleum being fined hundreds of millions for environmental pollution, a fine they’ll readily take because they’re still raking in billions on the other end.
Donald Sterling is banned for life from the NBA but he’s still the owner. This is not the first time an owner has been banned. In 1996, Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was banned from Major League Baseball for racist comments. She sold her majority stake in the team but remained a silent minority partner. She still made money.
Which is my point. Donald Sterling, Goldman Sachs, British Petroleum and pretty much the entirety of Wall Street continue to prosper despite being caught in the act. Their punishments were blips on the radar of their overall haul, and the only damages they face are public relations ones. And when you have as much money and power as they do, nobody gives a shit about public image, because in an oligarchy, who is going to challenge them?
The challenge, as it must, should come from the people, the citizenry. But this too is under attack. Overshadowed this week by 81-year old Donald Sterling and his twentysomething mixed-race girlfriend is the decision by the United States Supreme Court that minority preferences for school admissions shall remain outlawed in the state of Michigan. The statements by the Supreme Court justices allude to the idea that we are now living in a post-racial society, that racism, for all intents and purposes, ended with the inclusion of the Equal Protection Act in 1866.
1866. One hundred and forty-eight years ago, racism supposedly ended. Justice Sotomayor, who represented one of two votes against the decision (Ruth Bader Ginsburg being the other), fumed in a 58-page missive that her cohorts are simply trying to “wish racial inequality away.” The Supreme Court cited unfair advantages given to minorities and yet didn’t once address the practice of legacy admissions, the legacy coming from a time when minorities were rarely if ever allowed to step foot on many of America’s college campuses.
Only a few days after the Supreme Court declared racism over, Donald Sterling told his girlfriend that he essentially owns the black men on his team, that he can sleep with the house negro but it shouldn’t be talked about, that he’s got appearances to maintain. It also saw an equally knucklehead response from former NBA player and New York Knicks executive Larry Johnson, who tweeted that all black players need to disband from the NBA and form an all-black league, owned and run by black executives. I hope some kind of fine is placed on Larry Johnson for the sake of consistency.
But that’s just it. It’s impossible to be consistent with racism because it comes in so many forms. It’s also not illegal to be racist. We are protected by the first amendment to believe what we wish, no matter how virulent or malicious. The charge changes when we start to trample upon the civil liberties of others, when racism takes form in socioeconomic suppression, when one party is not afforded the rights and opportunities of the whole. You can be racist, but when your racism starts directly affecting the lives of others, it is then that you are a criminal.
The United States has a long history of duplicity when it comes to handling racism, and it is consistent with all colonial entities throughout recorded time. There has always been a retaining of power in the face of liberation. When the Equal Protection Act was included into the 14th amendment in 1866, there was a flurry of regulations passed that prohibited minority access to things like land ownership, education and legal representation. These were called Black Codes, legislation that allowed the white majority to circumvent the law and still retain a seat of power. In essence it is the plantation owner saying “I’ve granted you freedom, but here’s the new world you shall live in, with laws and terms dictated by me.” On paper the slave is liberated, but the socioeconomic constructs that permit true emancipation remain unchanged.
The debasing of voter rights in the south, the removal of affirmative action in Michigan, the select implementation of stand-your-ground laws amongst others have all amounted to the New Black Codes, legislation that continue to hold minorities back. Donald Sterling was freely allowed to discriminate for decades in his real estate practices, where he deliberately kept minorities from renting in more affluent, white neighborhoods. His empire is vast, so it’s not just one guy in a sea of many. Donald Sterling is the 1%, the oligarch who has disproportionate power over many. He has been given legislature that either allows him to discriminate or to be disproportionately punished for his crimes. These are the New Black Codes.
It applies to all of us, in every profession. We never once question why there aren’t an equal amount of women and minority filmmakers in the movie business. It’s not just about winning Oscars, it’s about the incredible disproportionate amount of white male filmmakers in a global industry. The common explanation is demographics, that if the primary target market is white men aged 18-40, then who better to cater to that market than white men. But then that doesn’t explain the popularity of manga globally, or the fact that 50% of the population doesn’t have a Y chromosome, or that the primary revenue streams for Hollywood are coming from non-white, foreign markets. There is something else at play here, and to deny it is to plead ignorance in the worst way. I’ve walked into an office and been told that the production company isn’t looking for Bollywood, this despite that my scripts and products have nothing to do with Bollywood or India. They simply see that I am Indian and assume that is what I’ll make. I’ve been told that my reel “needs more white people” for it to appeal to companies, because apparently it’s an entirely different skillset to direct white people. I’ve been dissuaded to having a black lead actor in my next film because it’ll make it more difficult to sell foreign territories, that black men and women can’t open a film. It’s nonsense, and further affirming that this is a white man’s world, and we’re here to cater to it because unfortunately it makes money. Money for old white men. If I had a dime for every time I was told “sorry, but this is just the way it is…”
"But you’re a working filmmaker," you might say. "You’ve got a footing in the industry," you might argue. With the passage of civil rights, people seem to think all we minorities do is complain. "We gave you your freedom, what more do you want from us!" No. When slavery ended and civil rights passed, it stopped people from being able to lynch us, to rape our women, to enslave us, to allow us the simple dignity of using a bathroom or a bus. It stopped people from being inhumane, but it did very little in terms of equality. Right now, that equality does not exist, and inequality has manifested itself in the form of the largest economic disparity in the history of mankind.
I can, with full honesty, make the statement that young people - Millennials, if you must - don’t give a shit about race, gender or sexual orientation. Race is a social construct. But while they don’t see color, they do see rich versus poor, the haves versus the have nots. The New Black Codes do not apply exclusively to people of color, they are applied to the poor, many of whom are white. They are designed to maintain a poor populace that is not allowed to empower itself through education, to allow wealth and resources to stay within the few hands of power, most of whom are white, many who are Asian, and very few who are black, women or latino. There is the old anthropological term of “money Whitens,” and it rings true as the wealthy, irrespective of race, try to adhere to an old, white colonialist way of life. It’s good - fuck it, GREAT - to be the king.
So what do we do about it? First, we must be politically active and fight the New Black Codes. We must ensure that our Constitution works for us, and not the rarefied few. This starts at the grassroots level, where we become actively involved in our communities to not only highlight injustice, but to collectively work on new legislature that embraces equality. One has to vote and hold their elected officials’ feet to the flame. Accountability must be had.
The next step is to actively debunk myths. The narrative that we live in an equal society, that we’ve made all the progress we can is a flat out lie, told by the few to appease the many. Make films, documentaries, write researched articles, write songs, poems and missives. Engage in dialogue, armed with the truth. Facts. Figures. Resources. Do not allow yourself to be talked into a corner. Do not allow yourself to be bullied, and if you see someone being bullied, come to their aid.
Lastly, this is not about “kill whitey.” I know this is a very uncomfortable conversation for many white men and women who know in their hearts they believe in equality and are genuinely not racist. When they are told about New Black Codes they need to understand that this is not about them, but they must also acknowledge the privileges that they have, the ones they assume are given to all. They are not. We must join, hand in hand, to make sure we’ve all got a level playing field. Whether we succeed in life or not is up to us, but we’ve all got to start from the same place. That is equality. That is self-determination. That is being American.