What's Missing from the Conversation Around Donald Sterling?
From the transcript of Donald Sterling’s conversation with V. Stiviano:
Donald Sterling: 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.
V. Stiviano: But shouldn't we take a stand for what's wrong? And be the change and the difference?
Sterling: I don't want to change the culture, because I can't. It's too big.
V. Stiviano: But you can change yourself.
Sterling: I don't want to change. If my girl can't do what I want, I don't want the girl.
Its a shame to paraphrase the recording that made Clippers owner Donald Sterling the first American professional sports magnate to be banned for life from the sport and relinquish his team ownership. The full transcript is a breathtaking thesis on race and sex in this country. On the tape, Sterling berates his black-Latina mistress V. Stiviano for posting a picture of herself with Magic Johnson on Instagram, while at the same time blaming structural racism for his concerns about her image. Sterling comes off as both the perfect racist villain, practically twirling a Colonel Sanders mustache, and an insecure old man trying to hurt his lover’s feelings by deploying racial slurs.
Sterling: "You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it ... and not to bring them to my games."
Throughout the tape, you hear two lovers brought together by obscene wealth argue about race. The discussion veers like a drunk history professor as the similarities between American racism, sexism, and classism, the abstractions necessary for hate, and the empathy necessary for love blur into one Twitter-conquering shitstorm.
Digest with me: The billion-dollar sports league that brought you the anti-hip-hop dress code just invented the racist thoughtcrime lifetime ban.
It's telling that Sterling's downfall came from a conversation with his lover as opposed to his 30-year history of discrimination. Over his years as an LA real estate tycoon, Sterling has performed many more concrete acts of public racism, often involving actual concrete. In 2009, Sterling paid $2.75 million to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit that included accusations that Sterling and his wife made statements indicating that African-Americans and Hispanics were not desirable tenants. Court papers in the housing discrimination case say that Sterling told people that "black tenants smell and attract vermin." On top of that, former Clippers executive and black NBA star Elgin Baylor sued Sterling for racial and age discrimination, saying that the owner explicitly said he wanted a team full of "poor black boys from the South and a white head coach." The white head coach had a four-year $22 million contract, while Baylor's salary was frozen at $350,000. The NBA turned a blind eye to both those cases.
It should be noted that the same year of his record housing discrimination settlement, the NAACP gave Sterling an award for his consistent financial support of its Los Angeles chapter. Sterling might see the world as too big and complex to change, but he was clearly concerned about maintaining a positive image.
How are we to judge the out-of-touch billionaire oligarchs that own our most popular pastimes? Does housing discrimination gut American communities more than managing hedge funds for Bain Capitol—like Celtics part owner Stephen Pagliuca? Is an anti-black NBA owner more ironic than a libertarian venture capitalist owner demanding millions in public funds to build a stadium?
Its easy to condemn Sterling as a racist when he says something simple and malign towards a black celebrity but much harder to talk about how our unbalanced economy fundamentally favors discriminating plutocrats.
It's harder still to maintain public discourse on the full motivations for Sterling's obsessions and worldview. The man might look down on black people but goddamn if he hasn't spent more than 246 hours a year for three decades watching the world's most talented black athletes perform in sleeveless jerseys before going home to sleep with his mixed-race mistress. In his lawsuit, Baylor alleged that Sterling would bring women into the locker room to gaze at his players' "beautiful black bodies." It doesn't take Sherman Alexie to point out that in the NBA, the “players are barely wearing any clothes." It is a sport where black bodies are ogled, worshiped, and commodified by an overwhelmingly white audience and ownership. Sterling seemed to revel in controlling the lives and bodies of people he looked down upon.
V. Stiviano: Do you know that you have a whole team that's black that plays for you?
Sterling: Do I know? I support them and give them food and clothes and cars and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?
Anand Balasubrahmanyan is a Seattle-based writer and immigrant rights activist. He goes on frequent rants about sports and masculinity.
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