Donald Sterling, ritual scapegoat
Shaming an old creep for his outmoded bigotry was empty political theater, and did nothing to address real racism
By Andrew O'Hehir
Sterling, to put it simply, is a scapegoat, whose ritual sacrifice may make us feel better about ourselves but does absolutely nothing to address the bizarre racial dynamics of American professional sports, and still less the institutional racism of our society. His only defenders are a handful of right-wing Twitter trolls who misunderstand the constitutional guarantee of free speech, or who fail to grasp that the NBA is not some socialistic Big Brother nanny state, but rather a private billionaires’ club with wide latitude to set and enforce its own rules, capricious or otherwise. It’s easy to mock those people, but in their bewildered fashion they’re flailing toward a valid point: Sterling was punished for making private remarks that threatened to embarrass the NBA’s burgeoning global brand, but only because they wound up on TMZ and fueled a zillion tabloid news stories. Sterling’s well-documented history of alleged racial discrimination and noxious racial attitudes—encompassing not just words but illegal conduct that injured real people in the real world—never caused that kind of stink, and didn’t matter.
I’m not defending Sterling in the slightest by saying that this saga does not in fact show America at its best, and does not demonstrate how far we have come and what enlightened attitudes we now hold. It demonstrates something entirely different: Our eagerness to be distracted by symbolic narratives that embody a lot less meaning than they seem to, rather than confronting conditions of genuine social crisis and economic contradiction. We love the Sterling drama precisely because it’s a great story, with undertones of 18th-century comic opera: The aging lecher, representative of the ancien régime, who throws over his wife for the younger mistress, who turns out to be a complicated character possessed of her own agenda; the private utterance (in French farce it would be a letter) whose revelation strips the ancient troglodyte of his power and reduces him to bathos. All that’s needed is the Figaro, the younger lover with a democratic spirit who sweeps up the girl and sets everything right. That would be us.
None of this, frankly, has anything to do with anything. It’s empty feel-good, just like the portrayal of Adam Silver as some kind of civil-rights hero, taking a courageous stand against the second coming of the Confederacy. I have no reason to doubt that Silver is a decent person with progressive racial views—one would hope so, at the head of a sport dominated for decades by African-American stars—but the encomiums heaped upon him this week feel like desperate projection. What I saw on television the other day was a CEO zealously protecting his immensely lucrative global business from the damage caused, in effect, by a rogue employee. As the International Business Times’ careful reporting of the story suggests, Silver initially contemplated a much lighter penalty for Sterling—after all, Silver’s mentor and predecessor David Stern had tolerated an overtly racist owner for many years. Faced with a possible player revolt, the flight of corporate sponsors and widespread public outrage, Silver was literally compelled to inflict the maximum penalty.
Donald Sterling’s “slippery slope”: The limits of our new anti-racist consensus
Sure, everyone condemned the Clippers owner's racist remarks. But why is it so hard for some people to go further?
By Elias Isquith
Cuban and Napolitano, then, were more or less on the same page: In the interest of free speech (which doesn’t really apply in this situation but, y’know, whatever) the best course of action to take in regard to Donald Sterling was to do nothing at all and either hope for, or expect, the best. “What to do with them because of their speech?” Napolitano wrote of Bundy and Sterling. “Nothing,” he explained. “I mean nothing.” Unlike other developed nations, apparently, you’re allowed to be a moron in America. And let’s not forget those slippery slopes, either.
Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic recently described Sterling’s sin as an act of “oafish racism,” a ham-fisted and unsophisticated style of bigotry that most Americans are happy to condemn while leaving “elegant racism”—manifested in dog-whistles, redlining, and the carceral state—untouched. This isn’t an objection I expected to levy against the clear-eyed and unflinching Coates, but I think that in this regard he may actually be giving us too much credit. It’s true that many or even most of us find Sterling’s oafish racism contemptible; but as Cuban, Napolitano, Zeiser and the rest show, even that sentiment isn’t as widespread as you’d hope. Few will outright defend Donald Sterling, sure. But some of the most influential among us are seemingly willing to walk up to the precipice of that very, very slippery slope.
As with almost any subject today, you have to get half the country to admit there's a problem before you can do anything about it. That's about where we are with racism. Until naysayers realize that Paula Deen, Phil Robertson, Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling, and the rest represent the mainstream, not the fringe, we won't get anywhere on the subject of race.
For more on the subject, see What Bundy and Sterling Tell Us.