“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made / And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade / You’ve got to be carefully taught. / You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late / Before you are six or seven or eight / To hate all the people your relatives hate / You’ve got to be carefully taught / You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Those immortal Oscar Hammerstein lyrics penned almost 70 years ago, ingrained in the classic Broadway hit show “South Pacific”, ring with stunning clarity today in the wake of two topical news stories.
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s vocal racism and Donald Sterling’s not-so-subtle bigotry show us that racial prejudice continues to stain the moral fiber of our national existence. Yet the reactions to them lead us to find a modicum of optimism in America’s slow cultural maturing process, notwithstanding that the progress has been unspectacular.
Bundy is the self-styled nut who for 20 years has let his cattle graze on federal land without paying his substantially subsidized grazing fees. He owes us $1 million. He lost two court cases challenging the government’s authority. Claiming he doesn’t recognize the federal government while professing to be a states’ righter, he recruited hundreds of heavily armed out-of-state militia to chase away Bureau of Land Management enforcement personnel. His thugs physically threatened law enforcement, media and hotel employees. Outnumbered and out-gunned, the BLM enforcers stood down and the Bundy band ecstatically claimed victory, leaving behind a group of lawless assault-weapons carrying militia personnel who had forced temporary closure of Interstate 15 in southern Nevada.
Worse than anarchist Bundy and his cronies is the support he’s received from Republican lawmakers, governors and extreme right wing media people who should know better — including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, potential presidential candidates Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. Heller referred to Bundy as a “patriot” for his armed insurrection against law enforcement. Fox News star Sean Hannity was the media pack leader. Anxiously anticipating a shootout, he hailed Bundy as a hero and gave him four guest slots.
Only when Bundy made openly racially charged comments about “the Negro” did these celebrity backers start to run from their support.
Days later, the Bundy story was pushed off the front pages when Los Angeles Clippers owner Sterling was caught on tape expressing racist thoughts to a girlfriend.
The flight from supporting Bundy’s racial rants are mirrored by the swift and powerful condemnation of Sterling’s bigotry by NBA teams, by the quick and decisive retribution taken by new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in banning him from all NBA games and assessing a $2.5 million fine, and in the widespread disgust expressed by sources across the political spectrum.
Like Bundy, Sterling insists that he’s not racist! But his history includes a 2009 forced settlement in the largest ever Justice Department housing discrimination case — $2.7 million for refusing to rent apartments to Hispanics and blacks.
Sterling would not have lost such a case 50 years ago because even California’s history reflects a 50-year-old evolution from legalized housing bias. In 1963, we celebrated the new Rumford Fair Housing law which outlawed discrimination in the sale or renting of real property, but the California Real Estate Association organized a campaign that garnered more than one million signatures to put an initiative on the November 1964 ballot that would nullify Rumford.
It was Proposition 14 and passed with a 65 percent majority! Ultimately, the California Supreme Court ruled the measure unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the U. S. Constitution and that ruling was upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court. Fair housing became federal law in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson’s strong civil rights leadership.
It’s impolitic these days to be seen as racist, even for people whose own biases dwell constantly beneath the surface, such as those in several states who push for restrictive voting laws that disproportionately disenfranchise minorities.
Today’s bigots generally don’t acknowledge their racism. They hide behind denial and project these attitudes onto others, but that in itself provides a slight element of hope because it reflects awareness that bigotry is wrong. It’s harder to personally overturn deep-seated racial bias that has been reinforced over a lifetime, no matter how irrational.
As Hammerstein wrote, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear / You’ve got to be taught from year to year / It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear / You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Michael Zucker is a resident of South Lake Tahoe and a stockbroker with Regal Securities. The views expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent those of Regal.