Chuck Ross

Why Those Racist Remarks Allegedly From Donald Sterling Felt Like a Punch in the Gut to Most of Us. Will the NBA Be Able to Do Enough to Fix the Problem? And a Surprise About Racism and the Rest of Us

Apr 29, 2014

In listening to just a 15-minute tape of what is purported to be a conversation between Donald Sterling, the owner of the professional basketball team the Los Angeles Clippers, and his former girlfriend — which is full of venom and vitriol about African Americans in general and Magic Johnson specifically — it’s impossible to overreact.

Like most people, I wasn’t familiar with Sterling’s history of racist remarks. And given the setting wherein the comments were made — an intimate private conversation between Sterling and a woman we’ve been told is his former girlfriend — the verbiage stung all the more. The comments had the ring — and the rawness — of authenticity.

A thought-provoking article by Harry Bruinius in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor addressed the issue head on, noting that Sterling’s alleged rants were just one example of how “the racism of today has been papered over by how Americans talk about race in public, which squares neither with many people's private beliefs nor with the realities on the ground.

“ ‘We are now living in a society where there is a huge gap between what people say publicly about race, and what they say when they think they are among trusted friends,’ says Mark Naison, the chair of African-American studies at Fordham University in New York. ‘This allows us to think we have placed race behind us even though there are deep underlying tensions.’

“ ‘It also allows us to deny that racial disparities in income, wealth, life expectancy, education and rates of incarceration have anything to do with racism,’ continues Mr. Naison. ‘Donald Sterling's comments remind us that this conclusion may be premature.’”

Indeed, the article adds: “Opinion polls consistently show white Americans think more progress has been made against racism than do black Americans. That perception gap has played out throughout society, even echoing into the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In gutting the landmark Voting Rights Act in 2012, a 5-to-4 majority of justices essentially decided that attitudes toward race have improved significantly. ‘Our country has changed,’ Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote.

“But last week, Justice Sonia Sotomayor mounted a full-scale intellectual assault on her colleagues’ thinking that race no longer matters as it once did, calling it ‘out of touch with reality.’”

Today NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that the league would impose a lifetime ban on Sterling along with a $2.5 million fine. That's a stronger penalty than most expected, with many predicting that if the NBA found the tape to be authentic, the most the league would do would be to suspend and fine Sterling.

That would not have satisfied most of us.

One of the factors that leads one to believe the tape has not been doctored is, as we have learned over the past few days, Sterling’s past history. Deadspin, the sports news site, has posted a number of quotes attributed to Sterling as far back as 1983 that are about minorities. They are some of the nastiest comments I’ve seen on the subject.

Why hasn’t the NBA said anything up until now? That’s something else that’s inexcusable. In a news story about the Sterling tapes we wrote, “Elgin Baylor, the former Los Angeles Lakers star, was employed by Sterling's Clippers for 22 years. He exited from the Clippers in 2008. In February 2009, Baylor filed a wrongful termination suit against the team. A 2010 article in the Los Angeles Times about the suit said: 'In his deposition, Baylor spoke about what he called Sterling's "plantation mentality," alleging the owner in the late 1990s rejected a coaching candidate, Jim Brewer, because of race. Baylor quoted Sterling as saying: "Personally, I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players." Baylor said he was shocked. "And he [Sterling] looked at me and said, 'Do you think that's a racist statement?' I said, 'Absolutely. That's plantation mentality.'"'"

Josh Levin of Slate talked about this in another provocative piece I read yesterday: “The owner of a sports franchise acquires his cultural cachet by basking in the reflected glory of his players. There’s a dark side to that owner-player relationship that we don’t really think about, an uncomfortable truth that’s particularly fraught when you consider the racial dynamics at play in the NBA. A white plutocrat like Los Angeles Clippers owner/Hall-of-Fame-caliber bigot Donald Sterling doesn’t just own a basketball team. He owns the black players who suit up for that team, too.”

Levin continues: “Sterling is not a typical NBA owner. I’d have to imagine that his basketball-world brethren see their employees as remarkably talented human beings rather than the needy, subservient recipients of charitable food donations. Even so, it’s impossible to ignore that pro basketball is a business in which most of the employees are black and the vast majority of the owners are white. A whole lot of NBA players are incredibly rich, and a bunch of them are cultural icons. But like Sterling says, it’s the super-duper-rich guys who control the league while the players provide the entertainment. … As the New Yorker’s Ben Greenman wrote on Twitter, ‘It's not just Donald Sterling's ignorance that's the problem. It's the decades that ignorance has been tolerated because of wealth.’”

In another piece on Slate, William Saletan notes that on the tape “Sterling — or a man who impersonates him perfectly, while the real Sterling mysteriously fails to deny that the voice is his — invokes society’s opinions. You have to practice racism, he argues, because otherwise people will think ill of you.”

In the tape, “Sterling repeatedly attributes racism to the world, not to himself,” Saletan observes. But then, when Sterling’s girlfriend suggests that he can “change himself,” Sterling says, “I don’t want to change.” Saletan comments, “What a wretched moment. Sterling, a rich man with immense power over a city and millions of fans, pleads weakness. But eventually he admits it’s a matter of will. He has surrendered not to the world, but to the worst in himself.”

Part of our outrage is aimed at Sterling’s incredible insensitivity. Most of us don’t feel sorry for him, we are mad as hell at him and despise him.

One of the few people who has warned us to slow down in our efforts to get rid of Sterling is fellow NBA team owner Mark Cuban. Cuban, who at first declined to talk about the Sterling situation, opened up about it to the press yesterday.

Cuban was unequivocal in his condemnation of Sterling: “What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent. There’s no place for racism in the NBA. … There’s no excuse for his positions. There’s no excuse for anybody to support racism. There’s no place for it in our league.”

But Cuban added that he is worried about a “very, very, very slippery slope” in forcing Sterling out of the league. “In this country, people are allowed to be morons. They’re allowed to be stupid. They’re allowed to think idiotic thoughts.”

Cuban then added: "Within an organization like the NBA, we try to do what's in the best interest of the league, and that's why we have a commissioner and a constitution, and I think Adam will be smart and deal with Donald with the full extent available. But, again, if you're saying a blanket, 'Let's kick him out?' I don't want to go that far because it's not about Donald, it's not about his position, it's about his mess — and what are we going to make a decision on?”

According to ESPN, “Cuban said it was ‘damn scary’ to ponder the thought of attempting to remove somebody from the NBA because of their private thoughts.”

I would argue that Sterling has a track record of plenty of public thoughts that are racist as well. And TMZ, for one, has reported that Sterling knew his recent rantings were being taped.

To bring this piece full circle, in my readings over the past few days I came across a poll that reiterates the point of the Christian Science Monitor piece above.

It was an Associated Press poll and story from the fall of 2012 that should give us all pause.

The piece reports: “Racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president, an Associated Press poll finds, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.”

The story goes on: “In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell."

"We have this false idea that there is uniformity in progress and that things change in one big step. That is not the way history has worked," said Jelani Cobb, professor of history and director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. "When we've seen progress, we've also seen backlash."

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