The Biological Remedy for Racism
Unless you were on a religious retreat since Saturday, penitently shutting out the brays and bleats of the world at large, you know that a scandal has exploded in professional basketball and, indeed, across a considerable swath of American culture. Of course I’m talking about the disclosure of racist remarks attributed to Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. In moments of mental frailty, I suppose, we could call it Sterling-gate.
The electronic and print media in Southern California and many other parts of the planet are awash in reports about the controversy, which is elbowing aside that little flap in Ukraine. On Monday, Page 1 of the Los Angeles Times had in the lead position two articles about the Sterling matter, along with a photograph, and on Tuesday the newspaper again had two front-page stories on the brouhaha, plus two related multicolumn pictures. In addition, Tuesday’s lead editorial was about Sterling.
Some skeptics will ask whether, amid wars and plagues, storms and droughts, loss of life at sea and tragedy in the sky, this is legitimate news. The answer, in a single word, is yes. When someone as prominent (infamous?) as Donald Sterling is tied to something so outrageous, it’s news. As Willy Loman said in a vastly different context, “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
The public reaction alone — wide and deep — would make the development newsworthy. Barack Obama himself held forth, calling the recorded comments “racist” and “incredibly offensive.” The president went on to say: “The United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race and slavery and segregation, that’s still there, the vestiges of discrimination. We’ve made enormous strides, but you’re going to continue to see this percolate up every so often. …”
Obama aired the American dirty linen at a news conference Sunday in Malaysia, a stop on his four-country swing through Asia, when he was asked about it. I suspect he would have preferred not to be speaking about U.S. racism during a trip designed in part to promote the image of our nation, aka the land of the free.
Here’s a short list taken from the long, long list of other well-known people who have weighed in: National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Matt Kemp, James Worthy, Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, Jesse Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Arsenio Hall, Russell Simmons, Donald Trump, Al Sharpton, Pulitzer winner Eugene Robinson and Rush Limbaugh, along with masses of other media folk. (Limbaugh plumbed the political depths of the story, claiming that Sterling, a registered Republican, is “a big Democrat” who is in trouble only because “he did not give enough money to Obama.”)
The exchange in question is purported to be part of a conversation between Sterling and a woman whom some have characterized as his mistress. In case you haven’t memorized the poisonous diatribe, I’ve plucked out some lines for your consideration.
Man: Well then, if you don’t feel—don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.
Woman: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?
Man: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? I know that I have—who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?
Man: You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that [social media] … and not to bring them to my games.
Man: I’m just saying, in your lousy fucking Instagrams [photos], you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.
Man: Don’t put him [Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.
When the woman calls on the man to change, he says: “I don’t want to change. If my girl can’t do what I want, I don’t want the girl. I’ll find a girl that will do what I want! Believe me. I thought you were that girl—because I tried to do what you want. But you’re not that girl.”
There is no secret sauce that can make this mess anything but revolting.
So, what does it all mean for Sterling?
On Tuesday Commissioner Silver banned him from the NBA and imposed a $2.5 million fine against the lawyer and real estate developer. In another breaking development, Silver also said Sterling had acknowledged that it was his voice on the recording.The decision that came down Tuesday has a shimmering ring of finality for a man who has what, at best, can be called a history of crudeness concerning race. It is a punishment fit for a person who strongly cares about his public image, however many millions he has and will continue to have in his bank account. Over the years Sterling has spent huge sums for L.A. Times advertisements that tout him and his charitable work. Many of the ads — all of which are amateurishly designed — feature dozens of “head shots” of civic leaders and a particular photo of Sterling, apparently one that he feels presents him at his most handsome. LAT readers are accustomed to seeing the Clippers owner gazing back at them from behind a winning smile.
When I think of the Sterling issue my mind drifts to the Cliven Bundy case in Nevada. The rancher was at first lionized as a patriot bravely standing against an overbearing federal government in a dispute over cattle grazing. Later, many of Bundy’s supporters moved away from him when his racist sentiments were revealed. He was quoted as saying:
And because they [African-Americans] were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?
Bundy and Sterling share a characteristic beyond being wealthy and having deplorable thoughts on race: They are far from their salad days. Bundy is 67 years old. Sterling is 80. Bundy was roughly 18 years old when the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed. Sterling, born in 1934, was 31 when the legislation became law. They grew up in the Jim Crow era, and their attitudes reflect that benighted time of racial separation and white ignorance of groups and classes that were “different.” The tentacles of Jim Crow were long and powerful and reached far beyond the South. Even in areas of the country where an African-American could stay at the best hotel in town, patterns of discrimination and inequality could be found in abundance.
I was no stranger to Jim Crow. I was a white child in the South in the late part of that era, and I did not know a single African-American boy or girl.
Because I now teach undergraduates part time at a Los Angeles-area college, I’m exposed with some regularity to the social attitudes of today’s youths. The students in my classroom typically are 19 years old.
The course does not focus on race. We spend quite a bit of time talking about news and the students’ opinions on what is being reported. If these young people are racists, they are concealing it well. There appears to be a gulf between their positive attitudes and the attitudes prevalent in the culture of my youth, a time when minorities such as African-Americans, gays and lesbians suffered gravely under the heel of bigotry.
I will not argue that my students are free of discrimination, but I do think they have advanced far along the road that leads away from prejudice. Generally, they seem to accept people as people. And I applaud them for it.
Similar although less pronounced gains are evident in the old-Confederacy state I grew up in and still visit. Even there in the heart of Dixie, whites and blacks of every age associate with each other more freely than in earlier decades. Surely racist feelings remain, but they are much less frequently expressed in “polite society.”
Americans have a long way to go on the issue of racial equality, but we are going. Although some argue that ethnocentric racism is inherent in our species, there are encouraging signs — such as the groundswell of outrage that the telephone comments generated among whites as well as blacks — that race bigotry will diminish and that over generations its venom will evaporate. Except in some backwaters and some urban pockets, the U.S. of 2014 generally is far less racist than the U.S. of 1965, and in another 49 years the nation undoubtedly will have shed more tons of this unwholesome baggage.
Too optimistic? Maybe. But it’s better than believing that bigotry is inevitable, something we will be saddled with endlessly.
Accelerated progress will come with the passing of those whose retrograde racial thinking was formed in earlier periods. This does not mean we should sit back and let time provide all the answers. Minorities should not be asked to wait for pie in the sky, by and by. Social education and practical, progressive government policies must be pursued. As we press for fairness, victims of discrimination and those who champion their cause can take heart in knowing we will have a better country when the old thinking and the old thinkers fade away, as all must.
Editor’s note: A sentence in a previous version of this article incorrectly suggested that the conversation occurred by telephone.