What’s more important when it comes to current matters of race in the United States?
That the pathetic owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, possibly in the early stages of some kind of dementia, said absurdly racist things to his mistress?
Or that the entire basketball world, along with the better part of the rest of the country, immediately condemned him?
I say it’s the latter.
Likewise, what’s more consequential: That Robert Copeland, an 82-year-old town police commissioner in New Hampshire, recently called President Obama the “n” word?
Or that the fogy is no longer Wolfeboro’s police commissioner, having been forced to resign by deeply offended and embarrassed constituents?
Then there was the rancher in Nevada a few weeks ago who claimed blacks might be better off as slaves and then added something about picking cotton. What said more about us as a people?
That Cliven Bundy was hermetically glued to his bull?
Or that he was mostly portrayed, not as a patriot standing up to land-grubbing feds, but as a gun-addled crank?
Or what about Billings, Mont., 21 years ago?
Was the most important thing that white supremacists assumed the city would be a fine place to throw cinder blocks through Jewish windows?
Or that hundreds of residents of that ethnic metropolis — featuring at least 48 Jewish families at the time — taped paper menorahs to their windows in support of their neighbors?
Back to basketball.
What was more compelling: that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Donald Sterling from the NBA for life?
Or that in making the announcement, Silver’s voice quivered with anger and outrage?
The ban itself was absolutely called for. But the emotion in Silver’s voice was even more uplifting, as it suggested he was most powerfully motivated, not by narrow business or financial calculations, but by the moral outrage exploding in his gut.
I have not used this “What’s more telling?” format in a long time. But when I last did, the corresponding issue might have been a cross burning someplace in the Twin Cities or perhaps the defacing of a church or a synagogue — or maybe it was a cemetery. The basic questions I asked on that occasion went like this, more or less:
What says more about our decency? That some drunken 17-year-olds did something really ugly and hurtful?
Or that the great weight of the community has risen up against them?
To argue that the most significant answer each time, both then and now, has been “the latter” is neither naive nor wishful. Rather, it’s most realistic to say that when it comes to race in America, for all our shortcomings, we regularly do better than skeptics give us credit for.
Fools and idiots; they always will be with us. The true measure of our humanity is whether and how we reject what they spew.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment.