By Joe Klein
April 28, 2014

Correction appended, April 28

Here’s my favorite part of the Jeremiad that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly unleashed upon his (former) girlfriend. He was speaking about his players:

I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

How utterly perfect. Not just in its crude paternalism, but also in its historicity: this is what Southerners imagined the reality of plantation life to be in the honeysuckle nostalgia that overcame the region after the abolition of slavery–and which the rest of the country, especially Hollywood, adopted until reality intervened in the 1960s. As the song goes, I wish I was in the land of Cotton/where old times are not forgotten.* Sterling’s statement was the rhetorical equivalent of finding a perfectly preserved 3000-year-old corpse in a glacier. It was a stinging blast from the past. Conveniently, it came in the same week that seditious rancher Cliven Bundy delivered his own discourse to the New York Times about things he “knew” 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? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Also perfect. This has been the traditional southern white working class lament since abolition: black folks are a threat to their economic and social status. In the 19th century, the former slaves “took” white jobs (because they worked cheap)–and later, in the 20th century welfare state: they got something for doing nothing. Taken together, Sterling and Bundy are a history lesson. They are confirmation of a ton of brilliantly written sociology about the culture of the South. Both men would fit easily into the archetypes limned by John Dollard in his classic, Caste and Class in a Southern Town–the plantation owner and the vicious overseer. Their rancid nostalgia was brilliantly described by C. Van Woodward in his essay, The Burden of Southern History and, especially in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

Cliven Bundy has an added vestigial overlay: He and his armed seditionists are as old as the Republic. Their libertarian Scots-Irish sensibility was described brilliantly by David Hackett Fischer in his history of colonial America, Albion’s Seed. They opposed federalism from the start: From 1791 to 1794, they staged the Whiskey Rebellion against the administration of George Washington, which wanted to tax the home brew they made from their excess crops. Washington himself had to lead a federal force (composed of state militias) to subdue the rebels, who disbanded quietly.

There are those who will argue: Well, of course. Nothing has changed. White folks are just getting scared, as their majority dwindles, and blurting out the things they always thought. There is, no doubt, some truth to that. America’s form of slavery was particularly brutal and has yet to be completely expunged from the psyches of either blacks or whites. (Dollard’s book, written in 1957, is particularly good on this).

But, as baldly loathsome as the Sterling and Bundy statements are, there is no question that this country has seen a sea change in race relations over the past half-century. You can walk along Main Street of any southern town during lunch hour and find blacks and whites sharing a meal, a joke, an embrace. You can watch any NBA playoff game and watch African-American players in a glorious variety of pigments, including a rising minority who are clearly biracial. Those trends will continue; there will be ugliness and misunderstanding as we inch along toward the ideal of a fully Mongrelized, and thereby strengthened, America. But they are unstoppable.

*Just listened to Bob Dylan’s version of “Dixie,” which manages to be both nostalgic and lacerating.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the city in which the Clippers now reside.


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