If a random Google search is anything to go by, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who originated this clever quip, albeit in a slightly altered form:
“I dream of a better tomorrow, where chickens can cross the road and not be questioned about their motives.”
It’s clever, even if the Emerson attribution is somebody’s little internet joke. Nevertheless, I disagree. Sorry chickens, sometimes motives must be questioned.
Take Donald Sterling, for instance. Please, somebody, take Donald Sterling.
The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP was poised to give the notorious racist a lifetime service award when news broke that Sterling had been caught on tape making patently racist remarks about the very people who wished to honor him.
Incredibly, this would have been the civil rights organization’s second lifetime achievement award to Sterling.
There must be some explanation. And there is. Sort of. Sterling had made a series of modest donations to the NAACP over the years and the group wanted to keep the cash flowing.
Did NAACP organizers really believe that Donald Sterling deserved a humanitarian award? Almost certainly not.
Did they care? Same answer.
Motives matter. The NBA will soon deprive Mr. Sterling of his right to own the Los Angeles Clippers, but the octogenarian’s racial views have been a poorly guarded secret for years. In 2009, Sterling was sued by Clipper manager, Elgin Baylor, for discrimination based on age and race. Sterling repeatedly claimed that he wanted to have a bunch of poor black guys from the South playing under a Caucasian coach. Nobody in the NBA intervened.
The tape released by Sterling’s “girlfriend” V. Stiviano is singularly depressing. The Clipper’s manager is hurt that she would accuse him of racism. He is devastated that she would embarrass him by allowing herself to be photographed with Magic Johnson and, heaven forfend, memorializing the magical moment on Instagram. He repeatedly threatens to throw her over for a more accommodating woman if she doesn’t quit her lowdown ways.
In short, Sterling comes off sounding like a man who has spent his entire adult life surrounded by groveling toadies. Donald gets to say anything he wants, no matter how puerile and degrading. As a man of means, his motives don’t matter. And if he creates offense, he can cleanse his reputation with a paltry donation.
Cliven Bundy, the man widely feted for standing up to the bullying tactics of Uncle Sam, lost his support overnight when he shared his take on “the negro” with New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney.
“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Like Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy doesn’t think of himself as a racist. He introduced his remarks by saying it would be a shame if the “colored” people and “the Spanish” had to go back to the way things used to be. He then suggests that “the negro” was happier under slavery.
When his remarks spawned a tidal wave of outrage from sea to shining sea, Bundy was taken aback. “Was it something I said?”
Bundy was used to sharing his views with white people who shared his warped worldview and had no idea folks would take offense.
Sterling didn’t want his girlfriend associating publicly with “minorities” because he assumed “the world” would be offended.
With the media hanging on his every syllable, rancher Bundy assumed that his growing fan club would be enlightened and informed by his views on “the negro.”
No one asked why Bundy had been letting his cattle graze on government land since 1993 without paying the required fee. Not a single eye brow arched when the grand old man of the rolling plains allowed that the federal government had no legitimacy and therefore no authority. No one asked where these views come from. No one questioned the man’s motives.
Motives matter. Sure, plenty of westerners think the feds own too much land, or that federal officials can be heavy-handed. But when a man asserts that the United States of America is a legal fiction he is free to ignore, we’re dealing with something radical.
Historically, when Americans question the legitimacy of the federal government, the motive is racial resentment. So it was in the South before and during the Civil War. So it was during the nation’s brief flirtation with Reconstruction. So it was in the halcyon days of the civil rights movement. When the federal government ended slavery and segregation by legislative fiat reinforced, when necessary, by force of arms, the response has been predictable.
Motives matter. When a man like Cliven Bundy denies the authority of the United States to limit his freedom in any way, we need to ask why. Mr. Bundy shouldn’t have to reveal his deep-seated racism for all the world to see before we ask the obvious question.
Why are we willing to celebrate the heroism of a Cliven Bundy or hand out humanitarian awards to the likes of Donald Sterling right up to the moment they fly into a racist rant? And why, when the ugly truth is revealed, is the nation shocked, shocked! that anyone could think that way fourteen years into the twenty-first century?
Sure, Sterling deserves to lose his team (even if he profits richly from his humiliation). But isn’t there something a wee bit creepy about the orgy of recrimination we have witnessed on Sports Central and the evening news? The talking heads have been in a competition to see who could express the deepest outrage. Its almost as if we need to burn a token racist at the stake of public opinion every now and then to assure ourselves that we are a post-racial nation.
Donald Sterling likely had good reason to fear that his reputation would suffer if his girlfriend showed up in the wrong company. Guys like Stirling hang out with guys like Stirling; guys like Bundy hang out with guys like Bundy. There are millions of unreconstructed racists out there, folks, and the vast majority of these people would eschew the racist label. They’re just tellin’ it like it is. They’re all about free speech and the first amendment. They’re American heroes who resist the dictates of the politically correct.
But let one of these heroes slip up and use the n-word and we break out the tar and feathers. You can act like a racist so long as you don’t talk like one. Actually, you can talk like a racist so long as you avoid epithets and slurs.
Men like Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy are the way they are because nobody questioned their motives. If we told them the truth, the donations might dry up. If we ask too many questions, our all-American hero story might vanish with the western wind.
So we gain the donation or the killer story and lose our souls.