There are a lot of sighs of relief and satisfaction today.
After an unauthorized recording exposing his racist attitudes found its way to TMZ, and after just about everyone connected to the league spent the weekend consumed with “WTF” levels of gawkery over his well-documented reputation for racism, and after swift sanctions against him were promised by newly-minted league commissioner Adam Silver, it’s official – L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling has been banned from the NBA for life.
If my social media feed is even close to a representative sample of public opinion, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. My guess is that most of us assumed Sterling’s punishment would amount to a hefty fine and a short-term suspension – and boy were we wrong. Not only is Sterling banned from participating in any league-related activities, or appearing at team facilities, but in addition to the $2.5 million in fines, he will be facing pressure from the NBA Board of Governors to sell the team to a different ownership group.
Which means that pretty soon, this story will be fading from the news cycle and some other scandal will be jockeying for our attention.
So before those of us progressive types fade into afternoon naptime with our tummies full of moral superiority, we need to recognize a few principles, look in the mirror, and ask ourselves if we’re prepared to deal with them. And if the answer is anything but an honest, qualified yes – then we’ll bear a measure of the same enabling culpability that allows the Donald Sterlings of the world to inflict their racist business practices on the general public.
Principle #1: Racism isn’t just an attitude, it’s also an activity.
This is the thing that annoys me to no end about all the people tweeting about the First Amendment as it relates to this case. This is not a free speech issue. Donald Sterling is free to say whatever he wants about black people. No Thought Police are breaking down his door right now. As a matter of fact, no police of any kind are breaking down his door – because this is not a criminal issue. In saying the things he said on that recording, Donald Sterling broke no laws.
The reason why Donald Sterling was ousted was that his comments so perfectly crystallized his operating mentality, what Oprah recently called a “plantation mentality” – the idea that the black men and women under his employ are basically inferior beings, useful only as chattel.
And Sterling didn’t just express this mentality with words – he did it with actions. According to a 2003 federal lawsuit, Sterling actively refused to rent units to blacks and Latinos at one building he owned, and according to another one in 2006, he actively refused to rent to any tenant who wasn’t Korean. In one of the lawsuits, his wife Rochelle was accused of impersonating health inspectors for the purpose of identifying the ethnic identities of their tenants. According to former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor, Sterling had a “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude” that created a hostile working environment.
Now just because he settled some of these suits, and just because some of the charges were later dropped or amended, doesn’t mean there wasn’t any truth to the accusation. Donald Sterling wasn’t banned from the NBA because he said some offensive things, he was banned because those things were only the latest example of a consistent ongoing pattern of racism, and they were so egregiously expressed that his plantation mentality could no longer be ignored.
Which brings me to the second principle…
Principle #2: When evaluating scandals involving racism, context matters.
One of the difficulties about discussing and comparing racial incidents is that many of us have developed a habit of trying to appear fair and balanced, but unfortunately we end up creating false equivalencies to feed the narrative.
So for example, I’ve heard people say, on Twitter and in comment sections on blogs, things along the lines of, “nothing Clive Bundy said about blacks is worse than what black rappers say on BET every day.” In the abstract, that may be true. But I’ve never heard Fox News pundits refer to rappers on BET as being patriotic or brave for resisting oppressive government overreach, like Bill O’Reilly did in this segment.
The fact is, this was nowhere near the first accusation of racism leveled at Donald Sterling. If anything, people like ESPN personality Bomani Jones have been writing and talking about Sterling’s racism for years, and it’s more than a little galling that it took a celebrity rumor mill like TMZ to get people to notice. Jones’ piece on Sterling for ESPN in 2006 probably got more page views on Monday than it did when it was first published.
So on the surface, yeah, what Donald Sterling said on that tape may not have been terrible enough to ban him from the NBA, but context matters. Those words were just the deliciously ignorant cherry atop the turd sundae that comprised Donald Sterling’s three decades of NBA ownership, which – by the way – were widely regarded as horrible even without the allegations of racism. So the tide turned as quickly as it did because people were so horrified by it, it affected their perception of his team, and the league that supported it.
Which brings me to my final point:
Principle #3: Racism isn’t just morally repugnant, it’s bad for business.
It’s still amazing to me how quickly and swiftly this story broke and developed an avalanche of response.
By way of comparison, when the rumors and allegations surrounding disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy was brewing, the NBA did and said very little on the record, hoping that the product on the court would overshadow the claims of a discredited ex-employee like Donaghy. And this was a scandal that cut to the heart of the integrity of the game, and for months and years, the NBA did very little except to deny and deflect.
And yet in this instance, Donald Sterling went from eccentric jerk to league pariah in an extended weekend. Proportionately speaking, even the villains on Game of Thrones get more due process than Sterling did.
See, in our American culture, racism is one of the few cardinal sins that still exist. The gains of the civil rights era and the veneration given to civil rights era heroes like Dr. King, combined with a league and its fanbase that’s overwhelmingly dominated by African-Americans, means that racism-being-bad is one of the few things that just about everybody agrees upon.
So in this context, racism isn’t just ugly and abhorrent, it’s also bad for business. No one wants to be seen supporting a racist. Two days before the ban, at least 10 different corporate sponsors had recently pulled their support from The Clippers.
Which overall, is heartening. But there’s a danger here.
So now what?
The way a story is framed shapes the way people receive it. And in our hyper-efficient, soundbite-driven media culture, it’s easy to pretend that Donald Sterling is the ultimate outlier, some alien species of disgusting avarice, rather than an egregious example of depressingly common business practices.
The next Donald Sterling probably won’t be brought down because of a sordid affair with a biracial mistress, probably because he probably won’t be found in the owner’s box of a major sports franchise. In 2014, professional sports are far too visible an arena for someone that carelessly bigoted, which is probably why so many other owners want him gone.
But the next Donald Sterling might be managing stockbrokers. Or teaching in a private college or university. Or operating as a construction foreman. Or prosecuting criminals. Or tending bar at a local tavern. He could be one of our bosses or coworkers. Or he could be us, if we’re not paying attention.
For me, the most potentially heartbreaking outcome would be if millions of decent, hardworking Americans see that Donald Sterling is banned from the NBA and erroneously conclude, like many did after our 44th president was elected, that racial injustice is no longer a problem in America.
Because housing discrimination still happens. Redlining is still happening. Predatory loans still disproportionately affect minority communities. These are the things that contribute to rising crime rates, that turn high-rises into war zones, that make the difference between growing up in an episode of The Cosby Show and growing up in an episode of The Wire.
And none of these problems – NONE OF THEM – are sexy. NONE OF THEM will be in the headlines at TMZ anytime soon.
So I ask you, dear reader – are you going to turn a blind eye to these problems the next time you encounter one of them? Are you going to excuse someone’s discriminatory hiring practices just because that’s a part of the culture that person came from? Are you going to resist when a minority group wants to honor one of their own by changing the name of a landmark, just because you don’t know who that person is, and you just don’t want to be bothered with learning a new name? Are you going to minimize and deflect the next time a person of color brings up racism just because it makes you uncomfortable?
Think about the answer before you respond.
Because if you’re not willing to confront racism in the spaces where you live, then I don’t care what you think about Donald Sterling.