Don Sterling: The Aftermath

If you have been following my twitter you know that I have been spending most of my time watching the NBA playoffs. So it was much to my dismay that my favorite time of year was interrupted by the racist craziness that was the Don Sterling fiasco. I am happy the worst of it is over now and I thought this would be a good time to make some observations about this latest intersection of race and sports.

I’m glad that there was such a quick response from all quarters condemning Don Sterling’s worldview. At this point I am still waiting to see him lose ownership of his team completely. What struck me most about the situation was not the fact that Don Sterling is racist. I follow many matters concerning basketball very closely and was already aware that he had been sued for discriminatory practices at his housing establishments, was accused of racism by a former general manager (Elgin Baylor) and a former player (Baron Davis), and was just an all-around jerk who never cared about whether his team won or lost as long as it made money.

I took particular interest in the people who claimed that punishment of Sterling was hypocritical given that he was already a well known racist and the league had passed on earlier chances to get rid of him. This point of view is problematic. As far as I know no one in the league knew that Sterling was a racist in the early 80s when he bought the team and the thing about owning a team is once you buy it, it’s yours. Second, in every one of the legal situations that were mentioned about Sterling he won the cases or settled out of court, thereby retaining a very thin veil of innocence. The question to ask is under what circumstances would the league or anyone else be able to strip Sterling of his team when he hadn’t been found guilty of anything? Yeah we knew he was racist, but in legal terms we could not prove it and that made it speculation. I don’t think the NBA would have had a leg to stand on by stripping a guy of a team based on speculation about his character.

Another question people asked was why is there always such a visceral response to racism words but never any response to racist policies? This is the most interesting part of a racial discussion to me. The nature of racism in 2014 is incredibly interesting. It has been demonstrated on more than one occasion that racist words said in public or by public officials will be met with maximum condemnation. However, outside of catching someone on tape saying racist words, racism is nearly impossible to prove in a court of law. Part of this is because there is a majority of people who simply want to believe the illusion that outright racism does not exist and therefore the only way to prove a policy is racist is to prove that a policy had a racist intent. The problem is if someone does not say that they are racist how can you prove that their policies have that intent to people who don’t believe racism exists in the first place? This belief leads to all sorts of misconceptions because there are many institutions in America whose policies result in racist outcomes but as long as the intent of racism is unproven those policies are allowed to stand. This is exactly what happened in the case of Sterling, for years he could be a thinly veiled racist, because as long as you could not prove that his team was intentionally subject to a racist regime, the regime was allowed to stand.

This situation is a microcosm of our society. If you ask any person on the street whether racism exists in America, they will answer yes. Some answer yes because that is what they truly believe and others answer yes because they know that is the politically correct answer, but they don’t truly believe racism exists at all. At this time I believe the majority of Americans fall in the second category and because of that any talk about a potentially racist incident focuses on all the ways that the incident might not be racially motivated instead of focusing on how it is. If someone says something racist their words are shoved in our face and we have to deal with it. If a policy or law has some racially biased outcomes we bend over backwards trying not to call people racism instead of just fixing the system and moving on. This affects all aspects of our lives. In our politics we have the Republican Party which consistently supports racist policies, practices, and strategies, but is always shocked and outraged when it turns out that some outspoken Republicans actually harbor a racist mindset. In our education we are slowing eradicating Affirmative Action because we start from the premise that racism does not exist and therefore any law enacted to correct racism is unconstitutional because it takes race into account.

I would find this incredibly funny if it were not so serious. Racism literally means a system based on race. The most common system based on race is one that grants White people preferential treatment while denying equal opportunities to non-whites. The United States was founded in part on the mindset that White male landowners should be full citizens while all others should be second class citizens. Institutions were built to reinforce this racist/classist/sexist concept and policies and laws were put in motion to support this system. This system was under construction in America since the early 1600s and this state of affairs began to be redressed only about 40 years ago. Therefore, we must understand that economic, political, and social institutions in the United States contain policies that result in racist outcomes whether the people participating in those institutions are racist or not. The proper way to look at race in America is as though racism exists, not as though it does not. Systems do not change by simply ignoring what is wrong with them and hoping that they will go away. Sterling and his particular brand of racism could remain in the shadows because racism in general remains in the shadows and is only dealt with when someone says something that is obviously racist.

In his racism Sterling became a parody of himself, he reminds me of Candie in the movie Django Unchained. People laughed at the movie because they felt like it was referring to mindsets of a primitive era. The problem is people like Sterling are still around in real life and they occupy various positions of power in our society. I was moved by the solidarity of the players in responding to Sterling’s racism but last I counted 28 of the 30 majority owners in the NBA is of Caucasian descent. So once again this situation came down to Black people petitioning rich White men to eradicate racism created by rich White men. I am glad that on this occasion the White men in charge made the right decision, but I also wish for the day when the power dynamics are such that if something like this happens in the future rich White men won’t be the only ones in a position to decide what the consequences will be.