What Cuban is really talking about

People who equate Mark Cuban to Donald Sterling are actually equating themselves to Donald Sterling -- at least when it comes to a misunderstanding of definitions and nuance.

Among the revelations of Sterling's ignorance in his CNN interview was the way he casually said Magic Johnson has AIDS, as opposed to Johnson's true status as HIV-positive. HIV is to AIDS as prejudice is to racism. One is a virus, the other a disease.

Too many people can't differentiate between prejudice and racism. They confuse "race" and "racial" with "racist." They look for false equivalencies where none exist. Prejudice only becomes racism when those biases are acted upon. Prejudice can be offensive. Racism can be exclusionary, destructive or even deadly.

Here's one question you can ask to help you make the distinction: Was there an event that had real-life consequences? If so, it's racism. Racism can be documented, charted and graphed. It's a systematic method of denying rights and opportunities to a group of people. Prejudice refers to an internal bias, typically based on superficial attributes.

If it's a hypothetical scenario, chances are it isn't racism. For instance, Cuban talked about a hypothetical situation in which he would cross the street if he were walking late at night and encountered a black man in a hoodie or a white man with tattoos and a shaved head. He did so -- however clumsily -- to acknowledge the biases he holds, which are similar to the type of biases we all have, if we're being honest.

In doing so, he steered the conversation to a place our society isn't sophisticated enough to handle comfortably. The failure to even comprehend the terminology is but one barrier on the road to progress. "Racism" is too loaded a term to be used incorrectly. And lately it's in real danger of being misappropriated.

The greatest fallacy is that racism will die off when the octogenarians like Sterling are gone. That won't happen because racism is too deeply entwined with American society, dating back to the first draft of the Constitution. And a generation that has not grown up watching footage on the evening news of attack dogs and fire hoses being turned on black civil rights marchers can't recognize the more subtle signs of racism that still survive.

These days, racism can be found in the resegregation of schools 60 years after the historic Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling. Or in predatory lending, with a former Wells Fargo loan agent admitting, "We went right at them" at the end of Ta-Nehisi Coates' masterful case for reparations. It's even as subtle as the differing response rates from college professors based on the "ethnicity" and gender of emailers' names.

Yet some people feel a need to search for racism in places it doesn't exist.

In a survey of millenials (people age 14-24) commissioned by MTV, nearly half of the white respondents said they believe discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups. This came even though less than 15 percent claimed to be treated differently by teachers, classmates or co-workers and only 25 percent said they had been hurt by brief actions or words of bias. It also came in the context of a broader optimism about race relations among that generation.

But the inference is that there's a zero-sum arrangement, that progress for other races must come at the expense of white people -- and not just at their expense but through discrimination. This fear is prevalent even though there's a considerable gap between those who believe it and those who say they've experienced it. Which brings us back to the danger of misusing the word "racism."

It's why I'm hesitant to use it even for Donald Sterling's remarks in that V. Stiviano recording. He was being very specific, saying he didn't want her associating in public with black men. He hinted at some very sinister reasons why he felt that way, but he didn't go off on a diatribe about black people.

It doesn't mean that he never has expressed racist views -- or wouldn't again, given enough time around an open microphone. It's just that our standards for what constitutes racism have dropped now that it's no longer clearly delineated for us.

It shouldn't take a legal definition of bias for the other NBA owners to oust Sterling. It's a private group, and it's up to them whether they want to continue to have him in their midst and serving as a representative of them. Cuban's concern is that the low threshold could one day be used to bounce him, as well, especially if he's going to remain candid and admit to his own flaws.

Where Cuban should be reassured -- and the rest of us should be reminded -- is that having prejudiced thoughts doesn't make someone a bigot. Only acting like a bigot does.