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Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy and the truth about racism

When you picture a racist, what images spring to mind?  I ask, because in a single week, my own answer to that question has come to include to images of otherwise seemingly innocent types, and in that shift, lay important cautions regarding identifying and combating racism.

A racist?  I would quickly picture someone in the kind of Nazi or KKK uniforms favored by F. Glenn Miller, who is accused in the murder of 3 people on the campuses of the Kansas City Jewish community.  And without equating their words to his murderous deeds, I now add the image of these two men, Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling:

I want to repeat, no moral equivalence can be drawn between murder and ugly words, but there are lessons to be learned about racial hate, and maybe even learned better, when they come from less obvious offenders.  

You don’t have to fit someone’s stereotype of what a racist is, to be racist. 

In the last week we have heard some pretty ugly words from a normal looking cattleman who has spent an otherwise normal life tending his cows and caring for his family, and just yesterday, from a successful businessman honored by the NAACP in 2008 with a President’s Award, and again in 2009 with their Lifetime Achievement Award.

That we need to be vigilant in the face of Brown Shirts and guys dressed in white robes and pointy hats is pretty obvious.  Less obvious for many, is that racism infects the hearts and informs the minds of all sorts of people. You don’t have to fit someone’s stereotype of what a racist is, to be racist. 

There are white racists who come from all parts of the country, vote for different parties, and inhabit all sectors of the socio-economic spectrum.  There are white racists, black racists, and brown racists.  There are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu racists, just to name a few traditions.   There are also atheist and agonistic racists.

While we are often good at identifying the racists who don’t look like us, we are less good – dare I say less willing – to identifying the racists who dwell most closely to us, and look most like we do. That’s the real lesson that we can all learn from Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy – each admired men within their respected worlds, and each guilty of hate, even if they themselves don’t realize it.

Of course, all decent people should decry the hatred expressed by both Bundy and Sterling.  And the more compassionate among us will also try and understand the fear and generational issues related to their words.  The real work however begins not when we look outward, but when we look inward – at ourselves, at our own communities, etc.

Just as neither Bundy nor Sterling is the same as Miller, we need not be the same as Bundy and Sterling to ask where we harbor hates and fears of our own. 

What tough questions should be asking of ourselves, of the people who look like us, vote like us, pray like us etc, whatever “us” that happens to be? 

That's the real front line in the fight against racial hatred and that is where I want to be. Care to join me?

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.