Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Sterling: Defying a century of progress

By Nicholas Wapshott
May 6, 2014

A supporter holds a photo cutout of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling while standing in line for the NBA Playoff game 5 between Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center in Los Angeles

The punishment of Clippers owner Donald Sterling for being caught expressing his racist beliefs — “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” — was swift and severe. The National Basketball Association, the players and a large majority of the team owners were quick to come together to condemn Sterling’s primitive remarks.

The same was true when the TV chef Paula Deen was revealed to have previously used a racial epithet — the “n” word — while being deposed for a workplace discrimination lawsuit. Notwithstanding the fact that Deen was a big cheese on the Food Network, she was abruptly fired.

Radio talk-show host Don Imus speaks with Rev. Al Sharpton during Sharpton's radio show, in New YorkThe same happened when Don Imus ridiculed black women college basketball players on his Imus in the Morning program on MSNBC. Though he appeared on Al Sharpton’s radio show to address the issue, it was too late. Before he could mount his full defense and apologize, he was out of a job.

Although Imus crept back onto the screen, on Fox Business, and Deen is due to tour with a private-equity funded personal cooking demonstration across the South, the market had spoken: sour prejudice against people because of their skin color is so offensive to so many Americans, respectable commercial companies or organizations cannot be seen to tolerate it. Those who show a visceral contempt for others who do not look like them are doomed.

Racism is not dead, nor probably ever will be. Human nature will always include intolerance and fear of those who are different. But in the United States, at least, there is now no turning back.

Race, the curse of the United States and the most pernicious reason for its most destructive conflict, the Civil War, appears to be moving into its terminal phase. The holdouts and the apologists can rail against political correctness and plead for the right to say exactly as they wish, however hateful, but they too are on their way out.

The removal of overt racial prejudice from civilized American discourse is the culmination of a century-long social revolution in which 19th-century values have been gradually replaced by progressive ones. Those who believe it is possible to stand in the way of this seismic shift in social attitudes and turn back the clock to a golden age when giving offense was commonplace may achieve limited success. But their unkind, ill-mannered traditionalism will only achieve temporary success. Political parties who tie themselves to espousing and defending the cruel beliefs of the past are heading for extinction.

Los Angeles Clippers NBA basketball team owner Donald Sterling attends the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly HillsIt is hard now to believe that honest, upstanding Americans were once routinely proscribed because of their race, their gender, their sexual persuasion or their social standing. Yet such quotidian spitefulness was commonplace until recently. Slowly, however, progress replaced ignorance with tolerance — and life became kinder.

Personal morality in the 19th century was mostly hidebound, strict and often hypocritical. Non-Wasps were expected to know their place and were treated with scant respect. Religion and ethnicity were sufficient grounds to bar certain groups from private clubs and businesses. Even the U.S. armed forces were divided along racial lines.

To allow such apartheid to prosper undermines democracy. Though some Democrats and Republicans were prepared to defend the old ways to the last, democratically inclined members of both parties worked and continue to work to remove discrimination in all walks of life. Not only were racial and religious minorities emancipated over time, but women and homosexuals were too.

While some progress was made in the 19th century — such as the 1833 founding of Oberlin College that made headlines by admitting women and African Americans — progress picked up speed during the 20th century. The elevation of women in society was given a boost after World War One, when the 19th Amendment finally gave all American women the vote.

After working alongside men in World War Two, Rosie the Riveter and women like her established their right to leave the home and work full time. Technological advances, such as the birth control pill, also diminished differences between men and women and how they should be treated. Over time, more women were educated, so that, by early this year, a record number of wives were better educated than their husbands.

As the baby-boom generation reached young adulthood, the 1960s hosted a great individualistic revolution that dreamed of overturning the old social order. What began as a “generation gap” between the attitudes of parents and their children turned into a 40-year-long “culture war” in which reactionaries and progressives heatedly debated the role of race, gender, marriage and sexual orientation in society. (It is paradoxical that the first divorced president was a social conservative, Ronald Reagan.)

lbj-mlkAt the heart of the 1960s legislation to consolidate the changes in attitudes was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights legislation. His Great Society programs set out to provide the racial equality that the United States had long denied — particularly in the Southern states since the Civil War. The gay rights movement also gained strength in the 1960s, as individual freedoms were lauded over hidebound morality.

This century, the speed with which social attitudes have changed has been startling. Even prominent liberals have been overwhelmed by the progressive wave. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and both Bill and Hillary Clinton have found themselves scrambling to catch up with the views of their followers on gay marriage.

A glance at the polls shows how tolerance of gay marriage swiftly became mainstream. Its popularity is fast accelerating.  In 2004, 60 percent disapproved of gay marriage and 30 percent approved. That figure is now the reverse.

In the 2004 election, gay marriage was touted by conservatives as a national issue they expected would resound in their favor, and results confirm that gay marriage drove reactionaries to the polls. That year, however, was the tipping point that led to a stampede among young Americans toward approving marriage equality. The lessons for conservatives are hard to ignore.

Among the many Republican divisions — Northeastern moderates versus Southern fundamentalists, Keynesians versus Hayekians, pro-immigration reformers versus nativists — may be another profound ideological split: libertarianism versus conservatism. One road may lead to some form of salvation, the other to oblivion for the GOP.

Rand Paul is one of the few Republican presidential hopefuls who alludes to libertarianism, even if caution prevents him from fully embracing a creed that frightens old-school Republicans. By stressing the importance of individual freedom   of action, in economics, women’s health rights, sexual orientation and drug use and embracing the changes in society, he could recast the Republican Party in ways that would make it chime with younger voters.

As King Canute taught his nobles when he vainly ordered an advancing tide to halt, some forces of nature are beyond even a strong ruler’s control. The 21st century has continued a trajectory of progress that shows no sign of abating.

Those who dare stand in the way of this juggernaut are likely to find themselves a footnote in someone else’s history.

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage, and Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.

 

PHOTO (TOP): A supporter holds a photo cutout of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling while standing in line for the NBA Playoff game 5 between Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Radio talk-show host Don Imus speaks with Al Sharpton (not pictured) during Sharpton’s radio show, in New York, April 9, 2007. REUTERS/Chip East

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Real estate mogul and Los Angeles Clippers NBA basketball team owner Donald Sterling attends the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, May 1, 2012. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

PHOTO (INSERT 3): President Lyndon B. Johnson talking with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, March 18, 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •