16 May 2014

On Donald Sterling


I’ve known many Donald Sterlings in my life. I bet you have too.

When they start sentences with “There’s not a racist bone in my body, but…” you can pretty much be guaranteed the rest of the sentence will be racist. Ever notice how people who truly aren’t racist don’t really have to spend a lot of time convincing people? 

I listen to Donald Sterling and I see the likes of Strom Thurmond and Jessie Helms and George Wallace, each of whom pointed to all the good they’d done for poor blacks in their states as a way to appease their racist attitudes and policies - in the same way plantation masters described their relationship with slaves as symbiotic, in the same way Donald Sterling talks about providing homes and cars and clothes for his players. You'll find various incarnations still lingering today in state houses and Congress halls and presiding over corporate board rooms.

Racists in the spotlight, like politicians and celebrities, are easy to see through.  Give them enough rope and they’ll hang themselves. Or just keep recording long enough. Just as burning crosses are easier to spot than glass ceilings, today’s racism may be less noticeable...but there's no shortage of it, mostly flying under the radar and occasionally rearing its ugly head for all to see, as it is now. Will it die off with the eighty-somethings? Even an idealist like me knows it’s na├»ve to think racism will ever be fully extinguished. But there’s reason to be optimistic that it will fade in time - as society evolves and the US becomes more multi-cultural.

I was born in the rural south at the height of the civil rights movement.  I grew up with racism all around me. Racism is always inexcusable. But to be honest, I shrugged off a lot of racist attitudes among the old timers from back in the day who never made it past the county line as them “just not knowing any better.” The same latitude can’t be given to a savvy businessman who lives in a world-class city and associates with fellow millionaires of all colors, even if he is eighty years old. 

What the audio tapes and subsequent interview with Anderson Cooper reveal is an old man completely out of touch with post-millennium America. Adaptability is the key to growing old gracefully and Donald Sterling epitomizes the opposite - a curmudgeonly old man, stuck in his ways, desperately trying to hold on to the day when white men held all the power and did whatever they pleased to whomever they wanted because they had enough money to settle out of court.  

But his dirty old tricks aren’t going to work this time. There still exist places in America where minorities have no voice.  The NBA is not one of them. Legends like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and current superstars like LeBron James wield tremendous influence and power. The league’s commissioner acted swiftly and decisively when he banned Mr. Sterling from the NBA for life. Adam Silver seems genuinely disgusted by Sterling’s remarks. But he’s also no dummy. He knows that the multi-billion-dollar empire could come crumbling to the ground in an instant if the league’s most high profile minority players stand in solidarity and walk away.

For most African-American players, I’m imagining, this moment is bigger than the Clippers, bigger than basketball. It’s about the weight they’ve inherited from generations prior. It’s about their fathers and grandfathers who bit their lips and walked away from the condescending boss man because they needed to put food on the table. It’s about not having the votes to unseat a Strom Thurmond or the clout to face down Bull Connors. It’s about a legacy of powerlessness … But right now, with a hugely popular and successful professional sports league as the backdrop, and the whole world watching, they hold the power. And they’re not about to squander the opportunity to make a statement.

Some white people may not understand the level of ire Sterling’s comments inspired. We’ve all heard the tapes. When it comes to racist tirades, I’ve heard much worse. So has every NBA player, I bet. If Mr. Sterling were a decent guy, I imagine the NBA front office and league players would be open to giving him a second chance… a hefty fine and a suspension probably, but not a lifetime ban. Who hasn’t said things they didn’t mean in the throes of an argument with a lover? Maybe dismiss it as the jealous rant of an old man whose mental faculties might be on the decline. But he’s not a decent guy. He’s a slum lord with a long history of racial discrimination. He’s the antithesis of what the NBA is trying to project. The tapes provided the league with the ammunition it needed to get rid of him, and they did.

Mr. Sterling will undoubtedly fight this to the bitter end. The matter could be tied up in litigation for years. If the courts inexplicably return the team to him or his estranged wife, we can surely expect much upheaval… probably a boycott by NBA players who would likely refuse to play in a league that includes Donald Sterling. It could be the end of the NBA as we know it. 

And I would support the players 100%.

Side note: Dear Lord, if I’m ever a billionaire, please grant me the wisdom to suspect that a girlfriend fifty years younger just might have ulterior motives.