Why is Racism Different?


A few weeks ago, conservatives rushed to support Brendan Eich, so if we are consistent, why shouldn’t we defend Donald Sterling too? One could argue that even if the First Amendment does not apply, it is morally objectionable for a person to be deprived of his livelihood for his beliefs–even if they are demonstrably wrong. After all, there are many people who–notwithstanding the biological facts which underlie marriage–argue that the defense of marriage as a sexually complementary union is simply wrong and should not be tolerated. So why is racism different? Why shouldn’t we feel obliged to defend Donald Sterling?

Sterling with his erstwhile mistress (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Sterling with his erstwhile mistress (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

In both this and the Brendan Eich affair the First Amendment clearly has no bearing. Corporations can prohibit their employees from speaking in any manner of ways as a condition of employment. This is not a free speech issue, but a question of how far we can and should go in preventing workplace discrimination. The comparison is useful, because both Brendan Eich and Donald Sterling were/are the heads of their respective organizations. Both have attracted unwanted publicity for their organizations and, like Brendan Eich, Donald Sterling has been banned from the NBA for life. However, that is where the similarities end.

Marriage is an expression of biological fact. The begetting of life requires male and female to unite as one. This is indisputable. Contrariwise, racism is a form of discredited pseudoscience as valid as phrenology or astrology. There are some fringe groups who believe that the races are inherently different, but the disparities which have been well observed by social scientists have nothing to do with biology. Any difference between races is a complex mix of many factors of history, economics, and culture. Moreover, individuals within a given race may have very little in common besides the color of their skin–if even that. On the other hand, virtually all men have a Y chromosome and virtually all women do not and it is precisely this distinction and this distinction alone which forms the very essence of all their other differences. This is simply not true of any two individuals from different races.

There is also a difference between defending marriage and being a homophobe. Defending marriage does not degrade individuals who have same-sex attraction. We may disagree on the meaning of equality, but we can all agree that people should be regarded equally in the eyes of the law and of society. The fact that there are differences between the sexes does not affect their dignity as human beings. It is preposterous to argue that larger restrooms or maternity leave policies which are more generous for women than for men somehow degrade the dignity of women. These are merely an expression of observable reality. Racism on the other hand is precisely so pernicious because it consists entirely of an attack the dignity of the human person. Every stereotype and every prejudice is a rejection of what we can observe for ourselves and substitutes error for truth.

Job discrimination is wrong and it's illegal

Job discrimination is wrong and it’s illegal

Moreover, it is clear that Donald Sterling allowed his views to influence his actions towards others. There is no law against being rude or bigoted, but there are laws against discrimination in housing and employment. Donald Sterling has been investigated by the Justice Department because of his actions, not because of his speech. This is perhaps the most important distinction. People like Donald Sterling and Paula Deen get into trouble not because they perpetuate gross racial stereotypes, but because they carry their views into action towards their employees. Brendan Eich did no such thing. Indeed, the company which he founded attracted and nurtured a workforce whose very diversity proved to be his undoing.

Mozilla and the NBA are both faced with negative publicity. The NBA also faced the loss sponsorhips and even the possibility of a general player strike. As a business decision, it makes sense for them to eliminate the source of problem. However, there is one more difference which is especially disconcerting.  Brendan Eich was forced to resign for a single instance of speech which only recently became politically dangerous. Brendan Eich’s forced resignation for joining in an active, ongoing, and vigorous public debate is unprecedented. On the other hand, Donald Sterling is not the first instance of a public figure to suffer dire consequences for espousing racial bigotry. Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds faced similar actions.

As is so often the case, Sterling’s fall from grace has been preceded by a long train of abuses and misbehavior which demonstrate that he is utterly unrepentant and unlikely to change his views–which are not merely unfashionable, but morally wrong. Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life because he violated a longstanding and broad public consensus that such overt and public displays of racism are simply not acceptable. Despite this, Donald Sterling’s punishment is less severe than that of Brendan Eich, because even if the other NBA owners collectively force him to sell the Clippers, Sterling will still stand to benefit financially from the sale.

Without question, the First Amendment protects all forms of speech in public debate, but those protections do not necessarily extend to the workplace. That said, banishing racism entirely from the face of the earth is an impossible task. We cannot police the innermost thoughts of every person on the globe. As long as there are superficial differences between groups of individuals, there will always be stereotypes which erroneously apply certain characteristics of a group to all of its members. This is as true of skin pigment as it is of religious belief. Just as we cannot stamp out racism by making everyone the same race, we cannot stamp out the freedom of religious expression by making everyone follow the same religion or none at all. 

It is now taken for granted by a large proportion of our society that defenders of marriage are vile bigots who should be treated as enemies of mankind. However, unlike matters of race, there is not a broad consensus for redefining marriage. This is the reason that liberals insist on linking same-sex marriage to race as a continuation of the civil rights movement. In order to give legitimacy to their cause, marriage advocates need to be marginalized just as racial bigots like Donald Sterling rightly are today. If we are to remain a free society which respects the rights of every individual, we must balance the right to hold unpopular views against the scourge of dehumanizing racial discrimination, which ultimately will fall somewhere in the fuzzy gray middle ground between Brendan Eich and Donald Sterling.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Joshua Bowman joined in full communion with the Catholic Church in 2010 after many years in the spiritual wilderness. He recently moved back to his beloved native Virginia from Columbus, Ohio with his growing family and writes on religion, politics, history, and geographical curiosities.

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