Steven G. Percifield--author

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Steven G. Percifield  Author and consultant
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"I do not agree with what you say but..."


It likely was Voltaire; perhaps something he said off-handedly or maybe someone else trying to sum up Voltaire's philosophy regarding freedom of speech and tolerance. In any case, "I do not agree with what you say but will defend to my death your right to say it" was an underlying factor forming our early national mood. Please note that "early" is in italics. It conjoined freedom of speech and tolerance into a single principle.

In 1928, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in a dissenting opinion in United States v. Schwimmer, wrote "if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

Although my degree came from Indiana University, the bulk of my class time was accumulated at the Indiana University extension at Indianapolis (later merged with the Purdue extension, becoming I.U.-P.U.I.). One of the best "classes" I attended there was at the sandwich shop in the extension building on N. Meridian Street downtown. We would cool our heels in between classes engaging in lively debates over the great subjects of the day: our involvement in Viet Nam, the recreational use of drugs, traditional two-party politics, free speech, radical violence, de facto segregation of housing and schools, government mandates versus self-determination, civil rights...especially civil rights.

Fireworks were ignited by debate on any of those subjects except civil rights. The kids I debated with at the sandwich shop were, as was and is the case at any urban university, of diverse racial and economic backgrounds. Their various perspectives offered divergent views on the other issues du jour...but there was no debate among us regarding civil rights; we all felt that slavery and its bastard child racism were evil and not to be tolerated. It was interesting that, at the time, we seemed to view de facto segregation and civil rights as only loosely-connected subjects.

Upon seeing the first reports of the racially incendiary faux pas of Clippers owner Donald Sterling I had two feelings: 1) the man is obviously some kind of asshole and 2) could what he said have been taken out of context and not be really reflective of his feelings?

Amidst all of condemnations of the man and his apparent racism, I was impressed by a comment made by Mark Cuban who described the reactions to Sterling as the beginning of a journey down a "...steep and slippery slope." By this, I assume he meant the public crucifixion of someone over something said in a supposedly private conversation.

Yesterday, on TV, I listened to Kareem Abdul Jabbar discussing Donald Sterling and defending him as not being a racist, a charge which is the modern day equivalent of being a Judas. Jabbar knows and has worked with Sterling professionally.

I began thinking about the Sterling situation and tried to imagine what plausible scenarios might have led up to the release of tapes of his scandalous and apparently racist comments. Frankly, other than money or revenge, I couldn't come up with any.

So I'm left with two takes on the situation: either--

  1. the man didn't want his widely acknowledged girl friend to be seen in the company of African-American men or

  2. his girlfriend was trying to shake him down to avoid a scandal

Do either of these constitute racist activity?

According to Merriam-Webster, racism is "poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race" or "the belief that some races of people are better than others". I'm not sure that either of these definitions defines Sterling as a racist. Some may disagree with me. It is their right.

However, another of Oliver Wendell Holmes' writings does speak to the situation:

"I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country."