By now the dust has settled on the Los Angeles Clippers; their owner (as of this writing) Donald Sterling; his private distaste for minorities, particularly Blacks; and his public disgrace because of it. But I’m not so satisfied with the $2.5 million fine, the lifetime ban from the National Basketball Association, the press to divest him of his team, or the belated civil rights protests. The only bright spot may have been that the Los Angeles NAACP did not get the chance to honor him for the second time.
No, the satisfying and teachable moment—for all of us—would have been when the NBA learned in 2006 that Sterling discriminated against Blacks and Latinos to keep them from renting his apartment units. Sterling’s actions—not his thoughts or his statements—were both illegal and offensive. That was the time for team owners to state the reality that they respectfully rely upon the participation and patronage of the very people Sterling discriminated against. Where were the protests, threats of boycotts, refusals to play under this ownership then? Rather than stand on principle, sports stations, licensing agents, coaches, managers, and players kept the ball going and continued to get paid. Even the biracial mistress was getting paid—in houses and Bentleys.
We’ve solved nothing if we allow the dust to settle on Sterling or racist practices, or if we continue to be complicit in them through our own neglect or self-interest. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar captured that nuance during this whole debacle in a column he wrote for Time.com.
“Let’s use this tawdry incident to remind ourselves of the old saying: ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.’ Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep, we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs.”
Unfortunately, we have been sleeping far too long on the racial practices of institutions that affect people’s lives much more than basketball does.
The criminal justice system is a critical and parallel example. We have been sleeping on the practice of mass incarceration, its racial imbalance, and its slave labor.
According to the Sabrina Jones and Marc Maurer book Race to Incarcerate: A Graffic Retelling, we in the United States incarcerate 750 people for every 100,000 of our citizens, dwarfing the nearest contenders Russia and Iran.
And for years, although debate exists to explain the reasons for it, we have known that our system of mass incarceration shackles people of color at a much higher rate than it does White people for the same crimes. One of the most telling metrics is the breakdown of arrests for use and sales of drugs by race. While actual usage and sales are roughly similar across racial lines, African Americans get targeted more, arrested more, incarcerated more.
The prison industry is a going and growing concern. Jobs and profitmaking have coaxed us into looking the other way. Elected officials in rural areas have learned to seek new prisons in their communities because of the jobs they bring, says Maurer. The prison industry is a $74 billion business that employs nearly 800,000 people in the United States, according to one MSNBC report. Prisoners, who work for pennies, provide slave labor for the production of a large proportion of our military uniforms, including helmets, bulletproof vests, belts, ID badges, and tags. Incarcerated people make office furniture, solar panels, and eyeglasses. California prisoners process beef, chicken, eggs, and milk, according to www.motherjones.com. Major companies such as Starbucks and Nintendo have contracted to have prisoners assemble their products. The privately owned Corrections Corporation of America is publicly traded and is the largest consortium of prisons in the United States. It reported a $51 million profit in its first quarter of 2014, while those who are incarcerated earn pennies and have few viable vocational prospects upon release.
With mandatory and longer sentences, the social and economic impact of all this has been the further destabilization of African American families.
People are beginning to wake up, however, says Michelle Alexander. (You can read about her and her seminal work, The New Jim Crow, in our interview starting on page 8.) Sadly, at the highest levels of government and justice, this change is not about righting a racist system. That, Alexander said, would take a spiritual and political awakening. “I have found in advocacy circles that many people are extremely reluctant to talk about race and criminal justice in moral terms. They would rather discuss pragmatic policy choices rather than what the human cost is.” Without the spiritual and moral reckoning, we will repeat history, she said, citing the cycles of racial oppression, sometimes with great profitmaking incentives. “It was more than sitting at lunch counters,” said Alexander. “It was ‘we are all God’s children.’ Jesus was serious when He said, ‘In that you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me.’”
A spiritual and moral change on these issues would provide the satisfying and enduring approach, one motivated not by profit, but by the principles of Him who calls us.