Diversity Diva

Seeing racism’s effects

Michelle T. Johnson, Diversity Diva columnist
Michelle T. Johnson, Diversity Diva columnist

When I practiced law, I noticed that in discrimination cases that were paired with a claim of retaliation, juries often found liability for the retaliation claim but not for the discrimination claim.

In conversations over the years with people about discrimination, I find that people quickly downplay whether bias is as the root of the problem. More specifically, when the discrimination addressed is racial, I find that many whites reject the possibility of racism before they’ve fully considered the situation.

That’s one of the real underlying issues and lessons of the comments from Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and rancher Cliven Bundy — people seeing that racism is a breathing organism that still lives in America.

Denial doesn’t help anyone. Yet it’s what our country continues to do with racism.

People hide behind anonymous postings on the Internet, or keep their conversations with family, friends and mistresses private — or so they think.

We as a country mistakenly think that if someone isn’t burning a cross or jumping up and down and shouting expletives, racism isn’t occurring.

People hear others make racist comments, and they immediately assume it’s based on age or upbringing or even mental illness.

People make racist comments themselves and hide behind free speech or their innocent intent.

But racism is racism. If we lived in cocoons, what each of us thought of others wouldn’t matter. But racists are people who influence the livelihood of others.

An opinion that is racist isn’t a crime. It’s what someone does with the opinion that can turn it into a crime or a civil liability.

Sterling, for example, said things about black people that affected the livelihood of others. His racism wasn’t a private matter touching only those he invited over for a poker game. It was about the people who worked for him. It was about his customer base and the companies who endorsed his team. His racism had an effect. And that’s the problem with denial — it allows racists and bigots to keep affecting the livelihood or quality of life of others.

Every act or expression won’t result in lifetime bans or fines in the millions. But it would be nice if the “smaller,” private assaults of racism were acknowledged and addressed rather than written off because confronting the problem makes you uncomfortable.