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No matter what punishment is meted out on Clippers owner Donald Sterling, the scandal’s effect beyond the team itself and the NBA will be largely academic. What won’t change in any significant way is the nature of discrimination itself.
This post has been updated.
“Here’s this guy, and he has this blonde bimbo with him, they have a bottle of champagne, they’re tanked. And Don looks at me and he says, ‘I wanna know why you think you can coach these niggers.’”
Though it’s a second-hand attribution, the quote has the ring of truth in light of recorded comments published by TMZ last weekend. Alleged to be the voice of Sterling recorded by his girlfriend, the statements include multiple instances of stunning racism.
In the recording, Sterling chastises his girlfriend for posting photos on social media of herself posing with black people, including former Lakers great Magic Johnson.
It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to? …
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 … and not to bring them to my games.
The TMZ recording and subsequent longer version released by Deadspin reveal not just brazen racism, but the sexism of a married man delivering orders to his girlfriend on how to conduct her personal life. His girlfriend of black and Latino ancestry, no less.
That type of chauvinism adds to a legacy that includes this widely shared quote from a 2003 deposition:
That bizarre and repulsive excerpt aside, Sterling’s alleged recent statements are disturbing on many levels. Especially for the owner of a franchise in the NBA, of which the majority of players are black, in Los Angeles, with its deep heritage and large black population. And yet his comments were far from shocking for anyone who has followed Sterling and his ownership of the Clippers, San Diego’s most recently departed NBA franchise.
San Diego was home to the expansion Rockets from 1967-71 before their relocation to Houston, and to the Clippers from 1978-84. Sterling, a real estate magnate, purchased the Clippers in 1981 and moved the team to L.A. three years later. Longtime San Diegans were already justified in a dislike of Sterling, who meddled and starved the Clippers of resources before moving the franchise to Los Angeles without league approval.
Sterling continued his spendthrift ways in L.A. with his cash-strapped and perennially losing Clippers, while his reputation outside of basketball was of a racist slumlord. He allegedly told employees not to rent to black and Hispanic applicants. Sterling paid millions to settle discrimination lawsuits in 2003 and 2009, the latter being the largest housing discrimination settlement in Justice Department history.
Those accusations and settlements weren’t enough to raise widespread outrage. With the successful-of-late Clippers now enjoying an increased profile, the recorded evidence of Sterling’s bigotry has him and his team under intense scrutiny. Whether his fellow owners and the new NBA commissioner are able to run him out of the league or not, his public life has been permanently altered.
Whatever sanction or reprimand is ultimately meted out from among the extremely wealthy cabal of owners, the scandal’s effect beyond the Clippers basketball team and the NBA will be largely academic. (Update: Sterling has been banned for life from the NBA.) It will have spurred megabytes of internet traffic and lots of good copy, then the world will continuing rotating as it has.
What will be unlikely to have changed in any significant way is the nature of discrimination itself. With the first black president serving a second term in the White House, it’s convenient to think of ours as a “post-racial” society. The idea that race prejudice has been resolved becomes a cited excuse for intellectually dishonest rulings that lead to a cynical charade of regressive voting restrictions, among other unjust bureaucratic machinations.
This is not to draw a direct line between the abject bigotry of one man and broader discriminatory policies. Personal animus is not the only precursor to exclusionary public policy or private hiring practices. It’s a much deeper social science discussion, but at a minimum, they do lie to some degree on the same spectrum. In that light, consider the broader context of our local and regional institutions.
Democratic Party-dominated California is typically considered a liberal bastion. But our state has never elected a governor who’s a woman, black or Asian. The only Latino governor in California history served less than one year … in 1875. Every United States senator from California has been white.
Racial prejudice and segregation are embedded in San Diego history. That background does not necessarily define or compel contemporary life in the city. We’ve had Democratic-leaning City Councils and relatively moderate mayors in recent years. Still, the transition away from exclusivity is a work in progress. A non-white candidate has never been elected mayor of San Diego. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors? White folks for decades, despite supervising a county that is one-third Hispanic.
San Diego’s major sports franchises haven’t improved much on local government’s lack of diversity. The Padres have had just one Latino manager in their history, Cuban-born Preston Gomez, who led the team in its first two years of existence. The rest have been white men, as has every Chargers head coach in their history.
Does all this mean that San Diego is inherently racist? No, that’s far too broad a brush-stroke. Though in this context, one can appreciate if non-white San Diegans feel their interests have been less than adequately represented.
Most of us have some amount of racial or cultural bias. Whether gained by upbringing or other learned prejudice, whatever bigotry lies in my heart or yours can be unlearned with compassion. A basic level of human empathy can stop us from inflicting those prejudices. Ultimately, moving beyond our own individual biases can lead to a better realization of equality in all areas of life.
The late Jackie Robinson said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
Sterling doesn’t have to like black people. But as a modern society, we do expect and demand that he respect black people and everyone else as human beings. And for ourselves, we can strive to regard each other with that minimum of respect.