Let me share my personal opinion lest anyone think this piece is a defense of Clippers owner Donald Sterling: I find Donald Sterling abhorrent. From what I have heard and read this past week, he is a lousy human being. He is a racist with a record of discrimination – including against African-Americans and Latinos – and a man who holds views that should have been relegated to the dustbin of history long ago.
But I want to go beyond my personal disgust, our collective disgust, and hopefully spark a deeper conversation.
Whether we like it or not, these issues will continue to exist until we make the conscious and concerted effort to discuss them in the open as individuals and as a nation.
As a country, we have a collectively short memory. The news cycle burns through stories – and people – very quickly. And so it is with Donald Sterling.
Yesterday, the verdict came down for Donald Sterling. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned him “for life” and fined him $2.5 million to boot. The message is clear: “You’re a racist. You make us uncomfortable, we don’t want you here and don’t want to think about what you said. Go away.” End of story.
Or is it? Isn’t this part of a larger story that we as a country need to face?
People think the Sterling case stands alone. He had private conversations with his mistress/girlfriend/nanny that were recorded. Again, these were not public statements but things said in private, and in confidence, with a significant other. On those tapes, Sterling made it horribly clear that he doesn’t want African-Americans at his games and doesn’t want her taking pictures with them either. Offensive? Racist? Stupid? Yes, yes and yes.
Some think that this incident is simply an aberration; other sports franchise owners can’t think this way. These must be the utterances of a crazy old man. No other major sports franchise owner would ever say anything so patently offensive, and certainly not in front of business associates, right?
Wrong. Marge Schott was the President and CEO of the Cincinnati Reds when she referred to outfielders Eric Davis and David Parker as “million-dollar n----rs.” She once said, “I would never hire another n----r. I’d rather have a trained monkey working for me than a n----r.” Both statements were heard by business associates.
But that was a long time ago, another time. And that was Cincinnati. No owner of a sports franchise in a major market – or even General Manager of a sports team – would ever say anything like that today. And certainly not in a more public way, like on national television. Right?
Wrong. Al Campanis, General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, told Ted Koppel a thing or two about how blacks weren’t smart enough to be in managerial positions because they, “may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager.” He also said they don’t swim well because they’re “lacking in buoyancy.”
So maybe it’s an “old person in a position of power” thing. Maybe old people who are rich and powerful, running sports teams, say that kind of crazy stuff and have it slip out at the wrong time, but not someone who makes their living in the public eye, talking on television all day.
Wrong again. Broadcaster Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder actually said “the black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that go up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade… the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid.” Wow.
OK, fine, so from time to time, broadcasters make absurd statements, but certainly not the players themselves, right?
Wrong again. Pitcher John Rocker once seemed to most Americans to be off his rocker when he insulted “Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people ... those queers with AIDS” and one of his own teammates who he called a “fat monkey.”
There are more examples, even outside the world of sports. And as a country, it seems every time someone says something offensive or questionable, we treat it as if it’s the worst thing we’ve ever heard. Then we move on as if the problem were solved until along comes another Mel Gibson, Paula Deen or Donald Sterling who causes us to recoil as though we have never heard such a thing.
To quote Rodney King, “can’t we all just get along?” We can’t. We can’t because I’m not sure we really want to. As Americans, we don’t deal in nuances. We deal only in absolutes. We shun conversation on matters like this, matters of race, for the sake of simplifying and for the sake of avoiding our history and ourselves.
Why do we do this? Why don’t we consider Donald Sterling’s age, his girlfriend’s motivation or Paula Deen’s upbringing? Why don’t we ask more questions to make us better understand why they think the way they do? Isn’t this part of the story? Do we shy away from this because, deep down, we’re afraid to find who we are?
Given that there are so many of these instances of public persons making stupid and/or offensive statements, and given that many people in private – in a moment with a spouse or significant other – likely say things that others would find shocking, why are we so shocked and horrified, seething and salivating with anger and hatred toward men like Sterling? What is it about what he said, or how he said it, that makes us so damn furious?
It’s this: Donald Sterling makes us feel better about ourselves. That’s what he provides us. By hating him, we look to create a final resting place for the thoughts and prejudices we might secretly harbor about others. We don’t live in a “post-racial” time as so many have claimed.
America can come, pitchforks in hand, to burn down the Donald Sterling barn as if by doing so we cleanse racism altogether. But whether we like it or not, these issues will continue to exist until we make the conscious and concerted effort to discuss them in the open as individuals and as a nation.