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The Pathology of the ‘Neo-Peculiar Institution:’ Sport, Race and the ‘New Normal’

Robin HughesRobin HughesThere were a number of things that went through my head as I listened to the taped conversation NBA owner Donald Sterling had with his girlfriend (mistress in some writings). I had also just listened to the Supreme Court affirmative action deliberations on a mildly conservative news show and juxtaposed the racially charged conversation with the ruling, the racial and current context, and with thoughts and questions about the pathology of race.

The owner’s conversation speaks to the very real manner in which certain folks of color, in this case Black, are excluded from the structure and administration of large organizations — including sports. The discussion reeked of institutionalized racism in its most rudimentary form. The owner speaks from authority when he states that the current culture of the world acts exclusively — and that is normal. There is no right or wrong, this is the way the world acts. That is not racism.

His own subtext suggests that Magic Johnson may be good enough to play in the sporting realm, but, in reality, he cannot lead and is not welcome in his internal circles of acquaintances. One can assume this to mean business and personal.

The question becomes, if Magic and others are not included or allowed into those important circles, then how are people of color to move forward? The Horatio Alger metanarrative that is often quoted as some tangible trajectory makes little sense to people of color in this “new normal.” Many folks have heard, ‘Just work hard and you will move up. Go to school and you will move forward.’ These narratives infer that everything and everyone is equitable now. After all, we live in a democracy.

However, the fly in the anointment is racism.

Horatio Alger’s frame of reference only works when people are not impacted by the very real system of privilege based on race — racism. While the owner clearly exposes the underbelly of institutional racism, he also sets the context for the new normal. I cannot but wonder whether young Black males have been hip to the new normal and are pushed to become sports participants in lieu of ownership? In the new normal, they can be players. In racist context, Horatio Alger metanarratives are not normal.

The conversation speaks to the deep-seeded pathology of racism and how it can impact individual thinking. The owner tells the mistress that she is a demure White woman, or a Latina (which may just be White to him), although she is admittedly of mixed race, Black and Mexican heritage. What he ultimately suggests is that in this normal, you get things from the value of “White” property (Cheryl Harris told us this years ago). In a sense she is forced to “pass.” She notes that, by the way, Matt Kemp can continue to be a friend, because he is Whiter than she is … and she has met his mother.

In one fell swoop, the owner redefines what most folks knew as racial discrimination. According to the owner, racial discrimination is not real, because that is the way of the world, the culture of the world. That is not racism. In his new normal, racism does not exist because it is a part of the world culture. It is no longer pathological. The world has been cured.

In the new normal, the discourse is similar to that of plantation culture. The owner’s disconnected reality is coupled with his own twisted psychology about love and the “other.” The girlfriend reminds him that the majority of players are Black, and that the owners and upper management are White. He, in turn, reminds her that he and the other 30 or so owners provide food and clothing to the players (who are Black). It’s not the other way around. (Not sure whether he is aware that there are a few owners of color. One of whom is Michael Jordan.)

In the new normal, it is OK to exclude and discriminate because he was raised that way ― part of the culture out there and the world. According to the owner, you’re “stupid” or a “fighter” if you think otherwise. Sort of like the angry Black person.

In the new normal, as in plantation culture, if you cannot use their comb, then don’t bring them home. The owner asks that she not bring “Black” people to the game and remove them from her Twitter account. Remember, she is Black. However, according to his reality, she is not Black. She is a demure White woman or Latina woman.

I thought about why affirmative action policies have been critical and are still needed. I specifically thought in terms of race, since the discourse in sports over the past few days was about race. The counternarrative and most-often used argument is that affirmative action reversely discriminates. However, there are a couple of fundamental flaws in that argument. It assumes that first, racism and racist do not exist, and that secondly, affirmative action policies reversely discriminate. However, the majority of organizations do not disproportionately hire, admit, etc., people of color, so the notion of reverse discrimination becomes nonsensical.

Because organizations and institutions tend to disproportionately exclude people of color, affirmative action policies forces those entities to act equitably — whether they want to or not. Equity becomes a requirement. While not the best solution, I am not sure what else might be ― given a context that is so deeply framed with the peculiar institutionalized system of racism, coupled with hundreds of years invested in privilege for some groups and not others.

I like to think of how affirmative action works on a very fundamental level. It reminds me of the child who does not know how to share his toys, so the parent constantly reminds the child to share. Eventually, he learns to share. I suspect the same to be true of folks who may be challenged by the discourse that centers on race, racial structures, institutions, organizations, supremacy, privilege, etc. Folks who have never engaged with or encountered any type of “other” just might struggle with the concept of sharing.

Although many folks would like to see an end to racism, sexism/gender discrimination and a host of other “isms” still occur and are deeply engrained in our culture. Affirmative action helps to disrupt multiple forms of “isms.” One would think that after a few hundred years that we would all learn … not so much.

Earlier this month, the high court’s 6-2 decision upheld a change to the Michigan Constitution in 2006 that forbids the state’s public colleges to make race, gender, ethnicity or national origin a factor in college admissions. Such decisions assume that everyone treated is equally. It assumes that there is no racism. Many other states will follow suit and we all suspect that not only will schools be protected from neo-“racism” and neo-Jim Crow, but organizations can now continue to institutionally discriminate, because, as stated by the alleged owner, that is the way of the world. That is the culture, and, now, this new normal is firmly protected and cloaked by legislation.

Robin L. Hughes is an associate professor in higher education student affairs in the School of Education at Indiana University. She focuses on issues of race and sports in education and in society.

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