Racism, Tragedy, Comedy: Sorting Out the Sordid Donald Sterling Fiasco

Donald Sterling

by Joshua on May 4, 2014

The NBA went into a feeding frenzy last week (and with it the American media, followed by the American public) over an audio recording of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling saying blatantly racist things to his fifty-years younger, alleged mistress. The cascade of events that followed could only have been dreamed up by some amazing team of Hollywood writers.

As I watched the events unfold on the tube and across the internet, I knew I’d been transported from reality and into an alternate universe where ordinary people like me get to watch movies while they are being made. This couldn’t possibly be the world I’ve inhabited all my life? A white billionaire with too much time and ego said something bigoted and the entire country responded with shock and anger? And now the crazed billionaire is in danger of losing his most prized asset? Why wasn’t the entire sordid mess quietly swept under the rug? Isn’t that what usually happens? The events I was witnessing could only have originated within a Hollywood script.

I tried to map out the characters in this movie, only I couldn’t find the movie’s hero. All of the other characters were there. Just no hero. What gives?

The Villain: Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling, the eighty year old long-time owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team can be heard on an audio recording chastising his nearly fifty years younger mistress for publicly cavorting with African American celebrities on her Instagram feed. Sterling’s comments on the recording are outrageous, ignorant, and offensive. Yet, are Sterling’s comments so out of step with our modern day American experience?

A simple exercise in self-restraint and critical thinking tells us that Sterling’s comments do indeed reflect the broader American culture we live in. Sterling urges his mistress to refrain from publicizing her interactions with African Americans. His comments reflect an old-school segregationist mentality. Not that he wishes harm on African Americans, but rather that he believes the White and Black races should remain separate. In Sterling’s own words:

It isn’t a question. We don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong. We live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture…I don’t want to change the culture, because I can’t.

Forty percent of African American students today attend schools that are more than 90-percent minority and disproportionately poor compared to their White counterparts. And check out the map below, which shows the racial composition of Sterling’s home town Los Angeles. Each color on the map represents a different racial or ethnic group (the key is visible at the bottom, right of the image). You can clearly see great separation between the different colored dots on the map. Each “color” seems to live in their own neighborhoods.

LA

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Take a look at 8 Mile Road in Detroit (another NBA city). The racial divide along the main strip is almost shocking… Almost.

Detroit

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Sterling wasn’t speaking of a society he knew from years ago and still longs for. Sterling was speaking of the society he lives and works in today. In Sterling’s world, minorities only matter if he can make money off of them (hello Chris Paul!). Otherwise, Sterling has no use for minorities.

The Femme Fatale: V. Stiviano

Stiviano refers to herself as Donald Sterling’s “right hand man” or his “silly rabbit,” though she is widely believed to be Sterling’s mistress. Around fifty years younger than Sterling, Stiviano can be heard throughout the recording probing Sterling with questions like “what’s wrong with minorities? What’s wrong with Black people?” She also makes reassuring comments (presumably to let Sterling know she still has his back) such as “I wish I could change the color of my skin” and “I thought Matt Kemp is mixed, and he was okay just like me.”

It’s not yet clear what Stiviano’s role was in releasing the audio recording. A cynical person would just assume that Stiviano orchestrated the release of the recording either for financial gain or to punish Sterling. And yes, there are times when cynicism is warranted. However, as this is a Hollywood production, we can only wait for the plot twist where we will discover the true source of the recording’s release. The butler? The maid? Was it Magic Johnson trying to pry the team away from its rightful owner at all costs? Who done it I say?

The Calculating Wife: Rochelle Sterling

Rochelle Sterling has gone out of her way to distance herself from her husband after the recording became public. “My children and I do not share these despicable views or prejudices,” said Rochelle. Yet Rochelle Sterling has a long history of alleged racism. She’s doing her best to paint herself as the “damsel in distress.” Hmmm.

The Tycoons: Former NBA Commissioner David Stern and the NBA Owners

The NBA has long known about Donald Sterling’s reprehensible behavior. Yet, the league chose to take little or no action. It started in 1984 when Sterling moved the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles without the NBA’s consent. Sterling was fined $25 million by then NBA Commissioner David Stern. When Sterling responded by suing the league for $100 million, Stern backed down and reduced the fine to $6 million. A small price for Sterling to get what he wanted.

Sterling’s propensity for trouble continued in 2003 as he described in open court his encounters with prostitutes. In 2009, Sterling settled a housing discrimination suit brought by the Department of Justice for a then record $2.75 million. His former employee and NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor raised troubling allegations in a 2010 lawsuit.

Each time Sterling’s dirty laundry entered the new cycle and quickly disappeared. In fact, in 2011 the NBA actually orchestrated moving Chris Paul, one of the league’s premier players, to the Clippers, making the Clippers championship contenders and in effect validating Sterling’s behavior.

The NBA could have taken action against Sterling at any point. Instead, the league chose to wait things out. Until now. Until the recording surfaced.

The Angry Mob: The American Media

Sure there were a few members of the media who for years have tried to expose Donald Sterling for what he really is. Yet, despite their best efforts, the mainstream media just didn’t seem to care. The Sterling audio recording was enough to get the herd running… right over a cliff it seems.

The Vigilante: Bomani Jones

Jones has bucked media trends for years while attempting to expose Donald Sterling’s racist actions. Back in 2005, Jones wrote this:

It was fun to laugh at Donald Sterling when he was a joke. Now that we know what he’s up to when he’s being serious, he deserves a lot more attention.

Here is Jones giving his take on the situation shortly after the Sterling audio went public. Brilliant stuff.

The Anti-Hero: The American Public

The public swallowed this story hook, line, and sinker. Our collective moral outrage was impressive, no doubt about that. Now if we could only harness all of that energy and use it to address the structural racism that actually exists in this country. Things like stop and frisk policies, stand your ground laws, driving while black behaviors, employment discrimination practices and many other social injustices all serve to frighten, injure, demean, and exploit minorities. All of these things could be shut down within a generation if the American public were to get in gear.

The Wise Old Man: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

When the entire country seemed to be on the verge of a meltdown, Kareem calmed the waters and opened a dialogue with this opinion piece in Time. In Kareem’s words:

So, if we’re all going to be outraged, let’s be outraged that we weren’t more outraged when his racism was first evident. Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. Let’s be outraged that whoever did the betraying will probably get a book deal, a sitcom, trade recipes with Hoda and Kathie Lee, and soon appear on Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing with the Stars.

Let’s use this tawdry incident to remind ourselves of the old saying: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep, we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs.

In this story, Donald Sterling’s comments are the straw man. His comments are so blunt and divisive that they get everyone fired up. The sad reality is that Sterling will take the fall so that our society can feel good about itself once again and brush our racial divisions under the rug. The best thing that could happen to us as a country would be to start a dialogue that critically and honestly examines Sterling’s comments and where they come from. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the public is ready to have that conversation.

Instead, we watch and wait to see where this anti-reality sideshow leads us. Here’s hoping that the Hollywood writers leading me on this journey will do the right thing.

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