Racism and Enabling: The Donald Sterling Fiasco and the NBA

There's much behind the national uproar over Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s remarks to “V. Stiviano,” a woman whose name and life remain enigmatic.

Regarding the national uproar over Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s remarks to “V. Stiviano,” a woman whose name and life remain enigmatic, in a private conversation she recorded and that was leaked to the press, there is already enough material to fill ten columns this size – and surely there is more to come.

And as is often the case, some of the reporting about this issue has been sloppy. Therefore, as we wait for this sordid tale’s next installment, let’s make sense of what we know thus far. Namely, that 1) Donald Sterling’s comments to Stiviano were not racist in themselves, but rather racism-enabling; 2) that we can conclude, nonetheless, that Sterling is a racist; and 3) that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver did the right thing by banning sterling from the league for life.

THE CONVERSATION

In what was presumably a private conversation between Sterling and his alleged ex-girlfriend/mistress Vivian “V.” Stiviano, Sterling is heard admonishing her for publicly associating with “black people” – for example, but not exclusively, NBA great Magic Johnson – and posing with them for photographs. “Don’t bring them to my games,” he says. But he insists he is not a racist and “I love black people.”

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The apparent theme of Sterling’s rant – erroneously called a “racist rant” – is that he does not want Stiviano to be seen publicly associating with blacks, but doesn’t care what she does with them in private. You can sleep with them for all I care, Sterling said.

Those comments, taken in isolation, depict more a racism-enabler than a racist. An “I-don’t-have-anything-against-black-people-but-what-are-people-going-to-say” mentality.

WHAT IS RACISM?

I have long proposed a narrow definition of racism: hating another race or considering it inherently inferior.
Both versions of racism are found in examples throughout American culture – here are two regarding sports: 1) the boxing match in which two African-Americans are fighting against one another, and a racist says: “I hope they kill each other – that would mean two less n****** in the world”; and 2) the long-held belief by some racists that “you don’t see many black quarterbacks because black people are not smart enough to be a quarterback.”

On the other hand, if a white guy says “I don’t want to walk through Harlem at night – the blacks might kill me,” or “I’m having a party and inviting a lot of black people, so make lots of fried chicken – they love that stuff,” those comments, while certainly being insensitive race-based evaluations, are not actual racist remarks. Because they neither indicate hatred toward blacks, nor a feeling of superiority.

The Harlem remark might be a commentary about racial tensions, perhaps even attacking out of fear, and that same person might agree with a black person making these statements: “I don’t want to walk around rural Mississippi late at night because the whites might lynch me,” or “I’m inviting a bunch of whites to my party – they love broccoli rabe.”

Sterling’s remarks have more to do with “what would people think?”. As if he is saying “I’m not a racist, but some of my friends are, and I don’t want you [Stiviano] embarrassing me by publicly associating with blacks.” That sentiment was underscored by Sterling’s describing “phonecalls” that he receives about Stiviano keeping company with African-Americans. That is a classic case of racism-enabling, i.e., perpetuating racism by catering to the racist mentality of others – but is not racism in itself.

STERLING’S RACIST HISTORY

Taken alone, then, Sterling’s enabling certainly warrants the NAACP’s retraction of awards they bestowed upon him, but probably wouldn’t merit banning him from the NBA. Yet, Commissioner Silver was right in banning him, because a totality of the circumstances tends to demonstrate that Sterling is a racist after all.

He has a history of making borderline racist remarks. “Black people smell,” he said, referring to his tenants. If by that he meant that all persons of that race are born with the propensity to emit an unpleasant body odor, then that would certainly fall under the “inferiority” aspect of racism.

But if he meant that “my black tenants” smell badly, he might be limiting it to a subset of a larger group. No different than if he were to say that trains in Athens, Rome, or Paris during the morning rush hour are filled with unwashed, sweaty, smelly people – because a daily morning shower is not second-nature on that continent – without meaning that Greeks, Italians, and French are biologically prone to body odor.

NBA legend Elgin Baylor, an African-American and longtime Clippers General Manager, contended in a race and age discrimination lawsuit that Sterling had a “plantation mentality,” because he said he would prefer a Southern white to coach poor black players. That, too, speaks to the inferiority aspect.

Others allege that they’ve heard Sterling use the “N-word,” a stronger indication of hatred for, mixed with a sense of superiority over, another race.

NOT A COURT OF LAW

If this were a court of law, then all of that would amount to “circumstantial evidence,” certainly not enough to convict beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial, and maybe not even enough to establish a preponderance of the evidence in a civil one.

But the NBA is not a court of law. It is a business. A club with certain standards. Beyond racism, race-enabling, or racial insensitivity, there are also other instances of Sterling just being an overall detestable, nasty guy.

And when there are enough borderline stories pieced together, none by itself enough to be the smoking gun, but all taken together more than enough, then it certainly is within the NBA’s right – and, arguably, its obligation to American society as a whole – to rid itself of an anachronistic pariah like Sterling.