Typically, April showers bring May flowers. This year, however, April also delivered a torrent of racially charged issues to the national stage. In Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on university-admissions programs that use race as a criterion in college admissions. Clippers owner Donald Sterling ignited a firestorm when a recording surfaced in which he asked his mixed-race girlfriend not to post photos of herself with black people on Instagram or bring black people to NBA games. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy garnered support from Senator Rand Paul and other prominent conservatives in the wake of his standoff with the federal government over cattle grazing rights. But most supporters hurried to distance themselves from Bundy when he offered these stunning remarks at a news conference:
I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro …. 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?
The nearly unanimous denunciations of both Sterling and Bundy makes clear that as nation, we have moved beyond the point where blatantly racist statements are publicly acceptable, easily explained away, and carry no real consequences.
When did this happen? While cultural shifts are difficult to pin down, there is good evidence that the country reached a tipping point in attitudes about racism sometime in the mid-1990s. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and an anchor of southern culture, finally came around to offering a sober apology for its former defense of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racism at its 1995 annual meeting in Atlanta.