steven ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*When I was maybe 10 years old, I remember walking through our living room early one evening, where my father was sitting in a chair reading the evening newspaper.

At some point, as he  turned the page, apparently  whatever he’d been reading on the previous page caused him to utter, just under his breath, almost as an afterthought,   “Crackers.”

I’d heard him use the  word before.  I didn’t know what it  meant exactly, but I knew it had to do exclusively with white people.  I also knew it wasn’t  complimentary.  “Peckerwood” was another moniker Daddy could occasionally call upon  when talking about whites–as in, “Damn peckerwoods down at  the Phillips 66  done raised the price on  premium  again.”

Would I characterize Daddy as racist?   I’ve asked myself that over and again while writing this.   My answer is no.  Daddy, long retired from  Oklahoma’s Tinker Air Force Base,  where he was a  postman  by day and on weekends a storied bartender at its Officer’s Club (an area of which was officially christened,  plaque and all,   The Ivory Room),  worked with white folk and has white friends.   I know what that sounds like, but it’s true.

Moreover,  Daddy never said anything to me or, that I know of,  my four siblings,   suggesting that we  not  be kind and respectful to strangers,  no matter their hue or circumstance. Unwittingly, Daddy taught by example.  When we were  with  him  in public, he greeted  everybody in a positive  lilt.  “Heyyy,  whaddaya say there,” was his line.

My mother was the same way.  Long gone,  when she was on the planet, Mama embraced all walks.  One of her dearest  friends was a woman who’d pick  her up  some  Saturdays—Mama didn’t drive—and they’d hang out all day.  Shop.  Lunch. That Mama’s  running buddy  was  white meant  little to us, but I suppose back then, in the late 60s,   it could have been a big deal to somebody.

My siblings and I have always been open to everyone.  The family’s younger generation resembles the United Nations.  Our extended family tree consists of people who don’t speak English very well.

And yet, Daddy is the man who put the words “cracker” and “peckerwood” in my universe.

I’ve been thinking about all this ever since the  Donald Sterling brouhaha broke.  Despite  soliloquies from   media folk and pundits; despite the strong  language and tough actions handed down by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver,  for me, the words of Los Angeles Laker Steve Nash  hold the most weight.

“If racism is a learned behavior,” Nash asked,  “how long will it go on for?”

The NBA star  spoke   to a press conference audience of reporters,  players and local Los Angeles politicians at a conference in L.A.  just minutes after  Sterling’s ban was announced in New York .

“How long,” Nash continued, ” will people be taught to be bigoted, to discriminate and to instill hatred in our communities?”

The short answer is as long as grown ups continue living  according to benighted beliefs and share those ignorant, fearful thoughts  with  children.

There’s this farcical notion that time alone  alters views and emotions.  “This is 2014!” goes the retort from many in response to instances of racism and discrimination, as if ignorance has  a sell-by shelf date before it simply fades away.    Were that true, there wouldn’t be children,  born generations after America’s  civil rights movement,  who hold  and espouse bitterly  racist views.

There is,  by the way,  nothing more heartrending than a child who is racist, for this is a young human being embracing hate with very little if any life experience that might somehow account for their feelings.  That child learned their empty,  bigoted philosophy where they learned nearly everything else they know as children: from their parents and/or grown ups and older kids around them.

The immediate result of the Sterling scandal is that  now every  bigoted billionaire CEO pats down their young mistress for tape recorders.

However, racism is bigger than sports and corporations and politics.  And while there are laws on the books that make it illegal to discriminate and commit crimes in the name of race, the answer is not simply in not getting caught being or sounding racist. The solution is the eradication of  this idiocy,  period.

Let’s stop communicating views and ideas that might be racist among all children–your own and others.  It’s  abuse.   If you can’t let go of the bullshit, fine.  But  keep it out of the ears,  minds and hearts of our  impressionable little ones.  A seed that isn’t planted is a seed that can’t grow.

I got a glimpse of racism-free thinking on Saturday afternoon, April 26, ironically, in the same moment  I learned of the Sterling scandal.  In the middle of  buying  a sandwich off a food truck in Culver City,  I  got a call.   Had I heard about  the  tape  on TMZ ? 

Dumbfounded, I hung up, looked up into the face of  the merchant inside the truck’s service window—we’d just had a conversation about the playoffs—and said, “I just heard that Clippers owner Don Sterling  is on tape saying he doesn’t want his girlfriend bringing black people to Clipper games.”

Before the  man  could respond,  up popped a boy  not more than 10 or 11, previously sitting out of sight  aboard the rolling kitchen.     With an expression that  reflected  sheer incredulity,  he said, “That’s messed up!”

The  food truck guy introduced the kid as his nephew, who’d tagged along  to help.  His uncle and I agreed the news  I’d just repeated was ridiculous. We  tried to explain why someone might think like this.  The blonde,  blue-eyed kid wasn’t hearing it.  “That’s wrong!  Aren’t the players black?”

Well, yes, most of them.

“Then how do THEY get in the place, if this man doesn’t want black people at the games?”

His uncle and I laughed at what the kid had reasoned, told him he was right, and tried hard to have him understand.   Then, sheepishly,  we looked at one another, uncle and I,  realizing the obvious:  racism just doesn’t make sense.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected].