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The Boston Globe

Opinion

TOM KEANE

Race and (re)vision in today’s America

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling tells a friend he would rather not have black people showing up at his games. Thousands of Bruins fans send angry, racist tweets after their team is beaten by the Montreal Canadiens. An elected official in Wolfeboro, N.H., calls the president the n-word.

Which matters more: the words or the response? The response, in all three cases, was fierce and unforgiving.

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Sterling’s remarks were the talk of the nation, greeted with seemingly universal opprobrium and finally (finally!) supplanting coverage of the fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The NBA commissioner moved rapidly, fining Sterling $2.5 million, banning him for life from the league, and vowing to force a sale of the team.

Less than a week after the Sterling story broke, Boston put on its own ugly show. P.K. Subban is a relative rarity in pro hockey: He’s black. One of the game’s more talented players, he led Montreal to victory over Boston in Game 1 of the second round of the playoffs, prompting furious Boston fans to unleash a torrent of raw, unprintable invective on Twitter. The Bruins were firm in their response, calling the tweets “racist, classless views” and their propagators “an ignorant group of individuals.”

And then just last week, Robert Copeland, a police commissioner in Wolfeboro, found himself in the hot seat for using the aforementioned racist epithet to describe Barack Obama.

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“For this, I do not apologize — he meets and exceeds my criteria for such,” Copeland said. But the town manager labeled Copeland’s words “reprehensible,” calls mounted for him to leave (including one from Mitt Romney), and the inevitable happened: On Monday, Copeland resigned.

One could easily conclude from these three examples that America is still a pretty racist country.

However, an alternative, more optimistic, view is that they actually demonstrate the opposite: that we are in some nirvana-like post-racial world. Granted, runs that thinking, there are still racists out there, still people who say vile things. But as Sterling, the Bruins fans, and Copeland have discovered, those who utter them are considered far outside civilized norms, their language greeted with immediate condemnation.

That’s all to the good. There’s no question that overt racism is now largely unacceptable. Sterling and Copeland, who are both in their 80s, seem like throwbacks, men whom the civil rights era passed by. Meanwhile, though the racism from Bruins fans shows some people will still indulge in bigotry if they can do so under cover of the Internet, their comments triggered a fierce counter-reaction of pro-Subban rebukes.

The chorus of condemnation of racism is encouraging, certainly. Yet the view that it signals we’ve arrived in post-racial America misses the bigger picture: Something is still terribly wrong in the relationships between whites and blacks. The two races live their lives in almost separate worlds. Most American neighborhoods are still largely homogeneous. Some of that may be due to intentional bigotry, but much is also unconscious, a matter of people seeking out their own. Whatever the cause, however, those housing patterns end up affecting everything, from education to friendships to romantic relationships to work.

“Today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech,” Michelle Obama recently observed. The impacts on blacks are overwhelmingly negative. A few examples: The unemployment rate for blacks is consistently about double that of whites. Median household income for blacks is 40 percent below that of whites. Blacks are almost three times as likely as whites to be poor, while black men are six times more likely to be in prison than white men. A significant achievement gap between black and white students plagues the low-performing for the rest of their lives.

There are bright spots, of course. The educational gaps between black and white have been narrowing. Ten percent of all marriages are now interracial, a new high. These speak to the prospect that one day there really may be an America where race doesn’t matter.

But today, still, it matters far too much.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com

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