Alex Blaze

Sterling vs Eich, or Racism vs Homophobia

Filed By Alex Blaze | May 14, 2014 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Brendan Eich, Donald Sterling, institutionalized homophobia, racism and heterosexism, racism charges

sexism-racism-homophobia.gifAfter certain conservatives rushed to the defense of Brendan Eich after he quit his job as CEO because he donated to Prop 8 but were quiet about the NBA giving Donald Sterling a fine for racist comments, David Badash asks the obvious question about racism vs homophobia:

Right now, many are demanding Sterling be sanctioned, many more want him to be forced to sell the Clippers.

But shouldn't Andrew Sullivan, Maggie Gallagher, Brian Brown, Bryan Fischer, Tony Perkins, AEI fellow Charles Murray, Legal Insurrection blogger William A. Jacobson, former GOP chair Ken Mehlman, Washington Post blogger Eugene Volokh, Slate's Will Saletan, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, among many others, voice support for Sterling?

Shouldn't they be rushing to his defense?

They all certainly were defending Brendan Eich just a few weeks ago. Some, in a strange reverse exercise of "hate the sin, love the sinner" act, even this week.

[...] Is being racist not acceptable, but being anti-gay acceptable?

Indeed, that's one way to look at the disparity. On this site, Dominic L. Auci blames the gays for some weak activism that's left people with the impression that homophobia is OK. Personally, I think gay people are far less responsible for homophobia than anyone else is, but the point is the same: you can't say the n-word without being sent into therapy, but if you use the f-word repeatedly and violently, some people (even gay people!) will defend your right to a political show on the supposedly progressive cable network.

But the situation is more a paradox than a hierarchy. Consider that Eich elicited a response the moment he went from a private citizen to a public figure by becoming CEO of Mozilla, whereas Donald Sterling was a known racist for years, profiting from African American consumers and workers without much protest from anyone with institutional power. That some comments recorded on his girlfriend's phone could raise more of a stir than decades of material discrimination against black people did not go unnoticed by black commentators even if some white gay writers didn't catch it.

So, is the fast response to Eich's homophobia compared to the glacial response to Sterling's racism a sign that being homophobic is less acceptable than being racist?

The conundrum is solved by asking why straight people care about homophobia or white people care about racism in the first place. If anything, they materially benefit from those systems of discrimination (a trans person denied a job increases the change that a cis person will find a job; a woman paid less for equal work implies that a man is getting more money more than he otherwise would; etc.), plus biases are easier to learn than to unlearn in a society built on racism and heterosexism and inequality more generally. People want power and material goods, so why would white people ever even pretend to care about racism?

My explanation has been that people also have an innate and powerful desire for fairness that comes with a psychological need to see themselves as fair. Sometimes they mislabel injustice as fairness in order to guard their self-image; other times they actually change their actions and beliefs to conform to their values. The latter is more likely when people haven't already committed the unfair act themselves. That is, it's easier to say that Donald Sterling is unacceptably racist if you haven't made similar statements yourself, even if you agree with him more generally. Brendan Eich's homophobia was reduced to opposition to same-sex marriage, a position held by a majority Americans at some point in their lives.

Ta-Nehisi Coates made a similar argument (and his entire post is worth a read):

As Bomani Jones noted back in 2006, Donald Sterling has long been a practitioner of racism and the NBA could not have cared less. Jones is rightfully apoplectic at the present response. That is because he understands that the NBA, its players and its fans, don't so much object to Donald Sterling's racism--they object to his want of elegance.

Like Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling confirms our comfortable view of racists. Donald Sterling is a "bad person." He's mean to women. He carouses with prostitutes. He uses the word "nigger." He fits our idea of what an actual racist must look like: snarling, villainous, immoral, ignorant, gauche. The actual racism that Sterling long practiced, that this society has long practiced (and is still practicing) must attract significantly less note. That is because to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.

On the other hand, Sterling's desire to keep black people out of certain neighborhoods (like Eich's opposition to same-sex marriage) is something a lot of white people can understand even if they don't consciously support, so no outcry. Protest is easier if you don't see yourself in what you're protesting.

This is not to say that the outcry against Eich or Sterling is based on dehumanization and demonization and that it would be better to shut up about it. I can't imagine how accepting racism and homophobia would make the world a better place.

No, it's not dehumanizing at all to say that some people's actions are unacceptable and that they should lead to real consequences. What's dehumanizing is not being able to accept the fact that we make mistakes, that we're capable of doing others wrong, and, subsequently, capable of criticizing ourselves and learning and doing better. We're not born perfect. We were all born in the final moments of a long history of discrimination and oppression. We can't expect ourselves to be divorced from that history, unlikely and exceptional beings who didn't learn what everyone else did.

Context is what makes us human. Glorifying it or acquiescing to it aren't necessary, but ignoring it is what's actually dehumanizing.

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