Racism is in the news again, and everybody is outraged. Some multi-millionaire idiot by the name of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA franchise, said some stupid things to his mistress, of all people, who recorded his verbal idiocy on a hidden tape recorder. The remarks were released to the press, and all Hell broke loose. Adam Silver, the new commissioner of the NBA, acted swiftly and boldly, and, per the powers granted to him in the bylaws of the NBA constitution, banned Sterling for life and recommended that the remaining 29 owners act quickly to force Sterling to sell the team.
A few months ago I wrote an essay in reaction to Paula Dean’s use of the “n” word and the uproar that followed. ( https://djgourdoux.com/2013/07/17/race-to-judgement/ )That was at the same time some redneck idiot from a “reality” show called “Duck Dynasty” got a lot of attention for some similarly stupid remarks. Now we have the latest episode in what has become an on-going American phenomenon, the self congratulatory denouncing of idiotic public figures and the insensitive things they say. In other words, the destruction of easy targets.
I should mention that I am a fan of basketball and the NBA in particular. After a few years in the nineties and early 2000s in which the quality of play was mediocre at best, the past few seasons have given us some of the best and most exciting basketball I’ve ever seen in my more than forty years as a fan. So far, this year’s playoffs, still just in the first round, have been amazing. The level of competition, the athleticism, and the heart and soul being poured into each game have been exhilarating to watch. The product that the NBA is putting out has never been better.
So in reacting to Silver’s decision about Sterling, there are a couple of key factors that have to be taken into consideration. First is the makeup of the league, which is predominantly African American, and second is the role the league plays in the African American culture. Because of these key constituents, Silver had little choice but to do what he did.
Were Sterling’s rights violated? This is a complicated question. The first answer is no. As its leader, Silver is responsible for the product and public image of the NBA. It is not only within his rights but part of his job description that he protects that image. Imagine for a second that Sterling was the owner of a Subway sandwich franchise in Harlem and made the same racist comments. It would certainly be within Subway’s rights to replace Sterling in order to protect its brand. I don’t think anyone would argue this point.
But here’s where things get a bit more complicated. Suppose a restaurant in the Deep South refuses to serve African Americans, on the basis that they would lose their white clientele, and their business would suffer. Suppose the restaurant owners can prove that in their racist community, 80% of the whites would stop frequenting the place if it served African Americans. In the Silver/Sterling example, it’s okay to punish racism because in the case of the NBA it’s bad for business. But what of the instances where a business profits from racism or racist attitudes? And don’t give me the moral high ground of it’s wrong to profit from racism – that may be true, but it happens each and every day. We can deny this all we want, but the simple truth is that the vast majority of Americans have become very comfortable with the systemic racism that we all know is embedded within the structure of our society.
All of the commotion and uproar over Sterling’s remarks shows that we still aren’t ready to seriously discuss the role of racism on our society. A stupid millionaire makes some stupid remarks to his stupid mistress about millionaire athletes, and everybody is up in arms, demanding retribution and justice. Yet when we look at this situation, who is really getting hurt? Is it the players? Not one NBA player is going to lose any money as a result of Sterling’s rants. Is it the fans? Both players and fans can be very good at looking the other way. It’s difficult to gauge the hurt sensibilities of either when an NFL franchise named the Washington Redskins still exists
Meanwhile, while we get hysterical about the idiotic babblings of a high profile moron, institutionalized racism continues unabated. In the past year or so, the Supreme Court has ruled against the Voting Rights act and Affirmative Action. A number of states have passed voter registration laws that are thinly veiled efforts to suppress the African American vote. Racial profiling was all but legalized when New York City passed and began enforcing laws that empower policemen to stop and frisk “suspicious” looking individuals without probable cause.
Even in Sterling’s own past, there are more troubling incidents. As far back as 2003, he was the target of a discrimination lawsuit for his practices as a landlord. Recorded testimony shows remarks and behavior much more outrageous than anything he said this time. He deliberately refused to rent to African Americans and Latinos and invaded the privacy and harassed existing African American and Latino tenants. Remarks he made that surfaced in that case are incredibly offensive. He settled out of court for 2.7 million dollars, yet admitted no wrong doing or guilt. Denying access to housing based on race seems much more severe than telling his mistress who she can be seen with. So where was the outrage then?
Equally damning for the NBA is Sterling’s treatment of one of its all time greatest players, hall of famer Elgin Baylor, who was the general manager of the Clippers. Baylor bought age and race discrimination lawsuits against Sterling in 2009, alleging even more outrageous behavior by Sterling. Sterling beat the age discrimination charges and Baylor dropped the race charges, but one wonders, as one of its greatest players and after a lifetime of distinguished service, and given the 2003 lawsuit and what we know now, why the media and the NBA were so silent in Baylor’s case. In his press conference yesterday, Silver issued an apology that mentioned by name several all time great African American players, including Bill Russell and Magic Johnson. The absence of Baylor’s name is damning.
The point of this all is, just like Paula Deen or the guy from “Duck Dynasty,” it’s easy for us to feign moral outrage when some stupid public figure says something stupid. It becomes a media frenzy, everybody eagerly jumping in to condemn the insensitive and moronic sentiments, whipping themselves up into a self righteous fervor. It’s easy, because there is a face and a name to direct our outrage at. It’ll last for a few days, and everybody will pat themselves on the back, satisfied that such hatred and intolerance has no place in our society, and congratulate themselves on their enlightened views.
Then, a week or two from now, Donald Sterling will be forgotten, and we’ll continue to turn our heads and pretend we don’t see the daily victims of our country’s systemic and institutional racism.