The good ol' days? Cotton pickers work a Mississippi delta farm in the 1930s. Credit: Marion Post Wolcott / Farm Security Administration

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s friends must be a mighty catty bunch. An instantly infamous recording seems to show Sterling, stung by mockery from his social set, telling his mistress — V. Stiviano — to steer clear of black men in public. “It’s like talking to an enemy,” he says.

Sterling tells Stiviano not to go to basketball games with black men or post photos on social media that show her in their company. She can love black men, he allows, but only privately, because she’s “supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl.”

It’s a shame when an 80-year-old billionaire wallows in racist stereotyping. The kicker comes when Stiviano informs Sterling that she is of “mixed” descent (meaning part black). Sterling tells his Pygmalion that he had no idea.

The widely-condemned contents of the leaked tape led yesterday to Sterling’s lifetime ban from the National Basketball Association. He may have to sell the team, which includes star point guard Chris Paul, a former New Orleans Hornet.

As a student of racism, I am intrigued by Sterling’s point of view. Presumably the whole breakup conversation was the result of a ribbing Sterling took about his mistresses’ social life.

Or at least that’s what Sterling appears to believe, if you untangle the threads of his private (and perhaps illegally recorded) conversation. He’s not racist, he claims, but everyone else is. He’s just a guy trying to make his way (and his money) in a world full of bigotry. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Jews — they’re all racist. Nothing can be changed, so it’s best to go with the flow and offer helpful hints to a dim mistress when she inadvertently makes waves that cause him embarrassment.

If you need to put a happy sheen on the Jim Crow or slavery eras to make your point, you probably need to rethink your argument.

I may be in the minority, but I found Sterling’s rambling, semi-coherent argument refreshingly candid. He seems to believe that ethnic culture is hopelessly racist. It’s a proposition long dormant in mainstream circles, but clearly not extinct.  To see it expressed as bluntly Sterling did — as an argument, not a provocative tweet or anonymous comment — you usually have to venture into extreme paleo-conservative or white supremacist websites.  (Until he was fired in 2012, John Derbyshire — the former National Review columnist and self-described “mild and tolerant racist”— was a prominent mainstream exception.)

The implications of Sterling’s worldview are fundamentally pessimistic: Racial groups have different beliefs and will forever be at war. Some paleo-cons (like, say, former pundit and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan) or white supremacists (like, say, former Louisiana state representative and gubernatorial candidate David Duke) topple right over the edge into full-blown racial paranoia. They warn that Latin immigration and high minority birth rates will dismantle America’s “traditional” culture and “our” country will be forever “changed.”

In other words, a country founded by immigrants on the twin premises of freedom and equality is in jeopardy of being overtaken by the cultural traditions of a darker-skinned ethnicity. Minorities need to stay minorities for democracy to work, they seem to believe.

It’s a position as absurd as it is scary to its adherents, but that doesn’t mean politicians — their views carefully framed and coded — don’t routinely pander to folks gripped by these persistent notions. We see it in the debate over illegal immigration and in the losing struggle to preserve legal discrimination against gay people. Artful proponents invoke “tradition” and the “rule of law,” just like the segregationists of yore.

So why do I say Sterling’s expression of paleo-con racialism is, of all things, refreshing? Well, because it fails so completely to conceal itself. A generation ago we heard this same sort of thing all the time. I’m not racist, but everyone else is, so I’m not going to be the first person on my block to sell my home to a black couple. It will reduce everyone else’s housing values. And that’s a fact!

These days, mainstream conservatives try to dismiss public expression of this viewpoint as confined to the right’s lunatic fringe. The “real racists,” they contend, are liberals. The right has mostly dropped the chatter about ineradicable cultural differences and “everyone else’s racism.” Instead, they depict liberals as using the “race card” to expand the welfare state and enslave black America to its addictive allure. The unstated implication is that black voters are too stupid not to be thus duped.

Granted, liberals are not immune to overreaction and excess. But conservatives have gone overboard trying to justify this liberal racism meme. Apparently, it’s not enough to say that welfare has ballooned with adverse effects on many low-income people, the majority of recipients being, of course, white. Conservatives seem increasingly invested in the idea that times are worse now for blacks than ever before. The “real racism” of the contemporary left, they contend, has made the current era worse for black people than Jim Crow! Worse than slavery!

I don’t know why they want to say this — perhaps because in our ahistoric internet age everything has to be “unprecedented” and point in the direction of a coming apocalypse. But consider the following examples:

1) “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson opined in a January GQ magazine interview that black people were happy picking cotton in the fields during the “pre-entitlement, pre-welfare” days. Quoth Robertson: “Were they [blacks] happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” Oddly, Robertson’s anti-gay remarks from the interview captured more attention. (The Advocate’s Ed Pratt was one of the few Louisiana columnists to directly debunk Robertson’s bizarre view that the pre-Civil Rights era was some golden age for black folks in the South.)

Gov. Bobby Jindal leapt to Robertson’s defense, calling him a “great” citizen of Louisiana, and chided liberals and the A&E network for not being more supportive of Robertson’s First Amendment rights. Somehow, I don’t expect we’ll see Jindal upbraid the NBA and invoke the First Amendment on Sterling’s behalf.

2) After becoming a conservative darling for resisting government attempts to stop his cattle from grazing on federal lands, rancher Cliven Bundy went on to discuss racial matters: “And I’ve often wondered, are they [blacks] 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.”

Former black Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes defended Bundy’s remarks:

Keyes said that Bundy’s remarks were not racist because Bundy “simply spoke about what he observed” happening to black families in America and that “in statistical terms … black folks are worse off than they have been in this history of the United States.”

“Hear that?” Keyes thundered. “Worse off than they have ever been! And since that includes slavery, it’s not racist to point it out.”

3) Earlier this year, a New York Times article about Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, referred to Loyola professor Walter Block.

“One economist, while faulting slavery because it was involuntary, suggested in an interview that the daily life of the enslaved was ‘not so bad — you pick cotton and sing songs.’”

Block is a Libertarian who seems to support many of Paul’s positions. He said he was being sarcastic. Still, in his response to the “scurrilous, libelous” article, Block argued that the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 “supports slavery” because it “undermines free association.”, the website where Block wrote his response, is said to have been founded by the ghostwriter of newsletters sent out by Paul’s father, former GOP presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. I happened to live in Texas in the early 1990s, and had ample exposure to those newsletters — I dismissed them as alarmist racist garbage, not some ideological harbinger.

Sure there are racists on the left. In fact, the first thing I thought of when I heard Sterling’s comments was a supposedly liberal landlord who once invited me on a drive to look at properties. I owned a multi-family building in Uptown and he had over a dozen comparables. I thought I was going to receive some tips on good handymen and ways to add value to my building. Instead, the guy spent most of the drive explaining why I should rent to Hispanics and not blacks.

Did I jump out of the car and run to the local fair housing center? No, but I should have. As several columnists have noted, earlier attention to the “largest housing discrimination settlement in Justice Department history” would have revealed Sterling’s questionable character well before the tape leaked out.

That’s the most important lesson we should draw from this debacle: Actions mean more than words. But, in light of all these recent controversial statements about race, I’d also add the following suggestion to conservatives and potential presidential candidates: If you need to put a happy sheen on the Jim Crow or slavery eras to make your point, you probably need to rethink your argument.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...