May 03, 2014

Sterling = scapegoat for racism

One pundit notes the righteous reactions to Donald Sterling's racist comments. He says they show how we're not willing to go any deeper, to tackle systemic racism in our culture.

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
No one’s heart should bleed for Donald Sterling—and pretty much no one’s does. Even Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the New York Post have made little or no effort to defend the disgraced owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, whose public banishment by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and public shaming by the mainstream media, was the principal vaudeville act in this week’s American political theater. Indeed, the entire purpose of the Sterling episode, from a societal point of view, was to demonstrate that we can all unite in viewing him as a dreadful person, and righteously proclaiming that his brand of cranky-old-guy racism, so reminiscent (for many white people) of debauched great-uncles at family gatherings, is no longer acceptable.

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.
Another pundit says we're lucky to see even this much of an outcry against racism. The do-nothing apologists among us would excuse and ignore Sterling if they could.

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
Fox News’ favorite legal scholar and Civil War revisionist Andrew Napolitano, for example, soon penned an Op-Ed for the conservative network’s website making essentially the same argument, claiming that Sterling—like Cliven Bundy before him—was a real jerk, but still deserved his right to free speech. Unlike Cuban, Napolitano is a former judge, so he was savvy enough to note that the NBA is not a wing of the government and is thus not subject to the same First Amendment restrictions. “[The NBA] is free to pull the trigger of punishment to which Sterling consented,” Napolitano granted. Still, he claimed, “it needn’t do so.” Why not? Because the “most effective equalizer for hatred is the free market,” which would, he wrote, “remedy Sterling’s hatred far more effectively than the NBA” by forcing the octogenarian and reportedly cancer-stricken billionaire to sell the team, lest he endure “catastrophic” financial losses.

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.
And:Taken together, these pseudo-defenses of Sterling hardly constitute a consensus of enough scope to rival what still remains the mainstream response to the Sterling recording, that he is an odious racist whom the NBA should’ve booted long, long ago and still can’t get rid of soon enough. But they do show that, if you scratch just a little past surface, you’ll find Americans aren’t actually as “evolved” on the issue of race as the intensity of the Sterling demonization might lead you to believe. For many Americans—mostly but not exclusively Republicans and conservatives—what Sterling said is to be condemned (“to be sure,” as many of the authors mentioned above like to say), but not in the same way that, say, shoplifting or speeding is, with material consequences. Instead, Sterling-style racism should be considered as a kind of extreme faux pas, as if it were essentially no different from texting in a movie theater or lecherously staring at your friend’s partner on a dinner date.

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.
Comment:  There's no right or wrong answer here; both pundits have valid points. But I feel more sympathy for Isquith's position. I'm glad Sterling triggered a discussion of race, no matter how superficial it was. I'm not sad because it didn't lead to a deeper examination of racism in America.

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.

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