Perhaps no private industry has created more African American millionaires since 1980 than the National Basketball Association. In an era when programs like Affirmative Action came under increasing assault and fewer people understood the persistence of historic discrimination in employment, contracting, and education, David Stern built an enterprise that paid black men billions of dollars and transformed the idea of their competitive excellence. This success was the underlying reason for the suspension of Los Angeles Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling. When his comments about the embarrassment of public association with African Americans emerged, the central status of African American players, coaches, and executives within the association made the situation into a crisis. The general level of racial integration within the association’s global consumer audience made the stakes even higher. No industry – in any sector – had ever taken such dramatic action to sanction a stakeholder for the expression of racism against African Americans. It was a moment that many people of African descent doubted the possibility of its occurrence. It was a jarring realization for many people of European descent who already confronted new demographic realities in the last two Presidential elections.
All of this drama occurs in an oft-obscured context – the massive resistance movement. Arguably the most powerful social and political movement of the last sixty years, it receives virtually no coverage in the mass media and not much more in K-16 education. Worse, its antecedents – more than 200 years of direct efforts to legislate, enforce, and constitutionalize the property status of Africans in North America – remain equally invisible. Superficial conversations about who were the most racist Presidents hide larger conversations about the generations of Senators, Congressional Representatives, State Senators, State Representatives, Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace, and Councilmen who built the most sophisticated legal and economic machinery to maintain racism ever conceived. Massive Resistance was the re-emergence of militant racists in nearly every state to undermine the Brown v. Board of Education rulings and all subsequent civil rights reforms. It created the “Second Nadir” – a period of hostile race relations so severe that it caused the Republican Party to abandon the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in favor of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. This period made it nearly impossible to enforce racial equality under a standard of “discriminatory intent” while incarcerating nearly 2 million African Americans and Latinos for nonviolent offenses and trapping thousands of communities like Norristown in multigenerational poverty. Massive Resistance is THE story of the last three generations – yet virtually no one knows it exists. It persists.
When President Richard Nixon adopted a policy of “benign neglect” on issues of racial integration and equality, he did it to maintain a political coalition that relied on the unquestioned strength of the Massive Resistance Movement. Its policies and directives remained so forceful that Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi could retain his longstanding position of leadership in the United States Senate until 2007, despite public associations with the most dedicated leaders of Massive Resistance throughout his career. The very notions of leadership and authority in the United States are soaked in the language of white heritage. This tradition shaped every level of private and public decision-making – it is an invisible noose around President Obama’s neck, constantly threatening him through remains of the MRM like the Tea Party, Heritage Action, and various media outlets across the worldwide web.
Donald Sterling’s punishment at the hands of the other owners in the NBA presents a unique opportunity in world history to confront the existence of the elite networks that continue the MRM’s work in the twenty-first century. The seeds of the white backlash to grow the resistance to a racially inclusive society are already sprouting after this confrontation. Youth voices that express outrage about discrimination against white people advance the same agenda that Nixon, Lott, and Sterling have articulated. Yet, there remains hope that everyone can escape the polarizing racial discourse that previous generations have swallowed whole. Embracing a common humanity begins with a forthright series of private and public conversations about the connections between ethnicity and race. How have identities like whiteness shaped every dimension of our most trusted institutions? Once people have a better vocabulary and understanding, then the work of seeing each other and valuing each other – across these resilient boundaries – can take place. Let’s call it the Massive Acceptance Movement.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (www.icmetrogrowth.com) and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement. His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor1), LinkedIn, Facebook, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).