Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


Ignorant and Racial Ramblings of an NBA Owner – What next?

For better or worse, I've had the opportunity of talking with at least some white people over the years about the conversations many whites have in our absence. No surprises, necessarily, but confirmation that many of their friends and family members absolutely believe the stereotypes that get passed around about Black folks. They also use language many of us would find extremely offensive.

Of course, institutional and structural racism won't allow for that kind of open and public acknowledgement. Racism runs deep through white communities. And the result of white racism runs deep throughout the world. As many have said before, folks in this country have minimal appetite for real conversations about race and racism. Such honesty and truth-telling would shatter the myths and beliefs of too many people who desperately cling to the falsehoods of white supremacy. But indeed, that work must continue. Some good will come from it.

During recent days, we've heard one of the latest and more public airings of some of this sort of talk that typically takes place in private. Oddly, this time, it's reportedly the voice of the Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling talking to - of all people - his "mixed race" girlfriend (former I would suspect at this point).

If all this is true, it's all but a new narrative. A recent telling of it perhaps, but this storyline is older than this country.

But this isn't the 1800's. Not even the 1980's, when Sterling bought the Clippers. This is a different world today - certainly a different American society. Racism still lives, but the current arrangement between whites and others is slowing dying. It's unsustainable. And rightly so.

While I think it's worth raising hell about this latest episode, it's still important to note that this isn't new for Sterling. He's been consistent in his contempt (born of a deep insecurity one could reasonably suspect) for Black folks - and others for that matter. Indeed we should've been raising this kind of hell about him in years past. Some did, to their credit, but most of us didn't. For that matter, most of us didn't know much about him.

On this general point, though, I agree with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. From his piece in Time magazine:

What bothers me about this whole Donald Sterling affair isn’t just his racism. I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise. Now there’s all this dramatic and very public rending of clothing about whether they should keep their expensive Clippers season tickets. Really? All this other stuff I listed above has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?

He was discriminating against black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record. We did nothing. Suddenly he says he doesn’t want his girlfriend posing with Magic Johnson on Instagram and we bring out the torches and rope. Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?

Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime. We didn’t steal the cake but we’re all gorging ourselves on it.

Make no mistake: Donald Sterling is the villain of this story. But he’s just a handmaiden to the bigger evil. In our quest for social justice, we shouldn’t lose sight that racism is the true enemy. He’s just another jerk with more money than brains.

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.

In terms of Sterling's past, Abdul-Jabbar highlights some of his prior shady racist dealings:

Since then, a lot has been revealed about Sterling’s business practices:

  • 2006: U.S. Dept. of Justice sued Sterling for housing discrimination. Allegedly, he said, “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
  • 2009: He reportedly paid $2.73 million in a Justice Dept. suit alleging he discriminated against blacks, Hispanics, and families with children in his rentals. (He also had to pay an additional nearly $5 million in attorneys fees and costs due to his counsel’s “sometimes outrageous conduct.”)
  • 2009: Clippers executive (and one of the greatest NBA players in history) sued for employment discrimination based on age and race.

It'll be interesting to see where all of this leads. Will the NBA escort him out of the leagues? Will other owners take him to task, or continue on with what has been a willingness to excuse his behavior? Will players engage in league-wide acts of protest and resistance? A lot of things to watch. Today will be a test for the NBA's new commissioner, as he said he'd be prepared to do or say more about this craziness today.

Given the current state of the NBA, especially the obvious plantation-like nature of the relationship between the league and it's majority Black players, I don't see the league giving Sterling a pass this time. When it's all said and done, I suspect he'll get bought out. He'll take his hundreds of millions of dollars with him, and Black folks will get a largely symbolic moral victory.

And everything else about race and racism in the league - and in our society more generally - will continue uninterrupted.

Be clear, the travesty here is not only the words Sterling reportedly spoke, but the fact that his words and ideas about Black folks have been institutionalized in the form of racist policies and practices, and that he can call upon other institutions to help make it all seem right. That's institutional and structural racism. That's the behind-the-scenes operationalization of racism that is harder for many to see. That's where our attention needs to be placed. And not only within the NBA.

There's a place called the Supreme Court and a place called the U.S. Congress here in the nation's capital, both of which shape a lot of the laws that keep these institutional and structural dynamics in place. There are also versions of these legal and policymaking institutions within your own communities.

So for those of you involved in this kind of advocacy and organizing work, this final word of encouragement isn't directed at you. You already get it. And your work is greatly appreciated by many. But for others who only get worked up at this kind of interpersonal ignorance, please know that there are some more complex and deeply rooted expressions of racism you can also make a huge difference on.

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