Ours was a country in which government regulation protected slavery. After a civil war helped end it, government regulations imposed school segregation, separate water fountains and back-of-the-bus status for blacks. Leading politicians - even a few who live today - openly belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. All this in a country founded to free and empower individuals.
We have a long way to go, but we've come quite far in 238 years.
We heard ugly remnants of racism last week with the media release of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's recorded call with his girlfriend, V. Stiviano. The woman, young enough to be Sterling's great-granddaughter, says she's of black and Mexican descent. Sterling can be intimate with a beautiful black woman but apparently has low regard for black men. In the conversation, Sterling warns the woman against showing up at his basketball games with black men. He admonishes her for posting photos of herself with basketball stars on a social network site - because the players are black. He sounded like a southern plantation owner who didn't know he had time-traveled to the 21st century.
It's not the 1950s, and Americans are no longer confused by such talk. It's wrong, and a majority of Americans know it's wrong. We were never supposed to hear Sterling's true feelings because, thankfully, society would react with revulsion.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver wasted no time in responding, announcing Tuesday a $2.5 million fine and a lifetime ban that will prevent Sterling from attending games or practices. Sterling may not step foot inside any Clippers facility or participate in any NBA-related business or personnel transactions. Silver also pledged to compel the NBA Board of Governors to force an immediate sale of the Clippers.
Sterling has every legal right to disrespect black men. He has every right to express his true feelings. In this great country, no such talk will land him in jail or authorize government to deprive him of fundamental rights protected in the Constitution. He retains his freedom, a person's most valuable asset.
But society has every right to shun him. Sterling's partners in business - in this case, management of the NBA - have the right to walk away from their association with him. They have the right and obligation to defend the value of their brand, which would be irreparably harmed by tacit approval of a man who harbors hostility toward people of color.
Silver said Sterling's comments were "deeply offensive and harmful; that they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage."
"Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic league," Silver said.
It was the right decision expressed with proper words. This country has only grown stronger and more prosperous with each effort to free individuals from the tyranny of ethnic discrimination.
In a world of instant mass communication and abundant consumer choice, market forces have the ability to banish ignorance and bigotry. The NBA exists at the discretion of consumers and advertisers who support the league and its teams. A free market that values integrity, talent and human dignity should quickly dispense with nonsensical old prejudiced philosophies that hold society back.
Sterling's remarks are a reminder of where we have been. The NBA's swift response is a hope-filled indicator of where we can go. In a world littered with slavery and religious and ethnic oppression, we can be the island of love that increasingly values individuals without malicious regard for superficial characteristics that make each of us unique.