On Donald Sterling

A few thoughts on Donald Sterling:

1. Whatever happened to the slumlord? Slumlords still exist—post-2008, more of them probably have MBAs—but the slumlord in popular culture is so 1980s, which is our loss. Wouldn’t we “get” Sterling better as The Slumlord than The Racist or The Rogue NBA Owner or Crassanova or whatever other odd assortment of caricatures from Marge Schott to Mark Cuban to Bill Clinton we might use to attempt to understand him?

2. I know someone who knows someone who worked for a local version of Sterling who, among other things, once complimented a black employee who had just returned from her summer vacation on her tan and, when she responded, “Oh, you can tell?,” laughed, “Of course not, you’re black, I’m just kidding!” Like The Real Donald with his fondness for “Asian culture,” Local Donald enjoyed the company of a Korean-American female employee whose main qualifications were breast implants and stilettos and also once tried to convince a Korean-American male employee to transfer from Marketing to Accounting despite the fact the employee had no accounting background (he was an English major) because, well, you know, Asians. Local Donald is no longer employed, mostly as a result of mergers and acquisitions and not, well, you know, racism.

3. Removing Sterling as owner of the Clippers isn’t a free speech issue and isn’t wrong. Conservatives who denounce political correctness are both opposing a “movement” that never seriously existed and confusing free speech with consequence-free speech. The Constitution protects the former but not the latter; words unfortunately do have contexts and consequences (even if the immediate context in this case is NBA Inc. protecting the integrity of its product and not the rights of black folk to be welcome at Staples Center if they’re wealthy enough to afford a ticket). Although one can make a valid argument that economic elites celebrate cultural diversity to mask economic inequality (why else do HR departments exist?), the alternative shouldn’t be economic elites tolerating both cultural and economic inequality. This isn’t Sterling’s worst transgression, but it’s his dumbest, and if removing him now involves some retroactive admission that he could or should have been removed before, there’s nothing wrong with that either.

4. The bad thing, though, is the media’s obsession with Sterling (and before him, Cliven Bundy, and before him, some other rube, redneck, or 80 year old billionaire) as The Racist Who Causes Racism, obscuring the structural, historical, and economic nature of racism. As Susannah Pollvogt has noted, “[r]acial discrimination today is enacted by facially neutral policies and everyone is too careful, most of the time, to speak racism out loud,” but facially neutral isn’t the same as neutral; taking two recent examples, “race-neutral” admissions policies never were or are neutral, nor are voter ID laws. Whether the Clippers are run by Donald Sterling or Richard Parsons—and whether the US is run by Donald Sterling or Barack Obama—might mean the comments-in-chief are less inflammatory and stupid, but the difference between the two wouldn’t end racism in either case. Sterling isn’t a cause; he’s an effect.

5. Speaking of Parsons, the fact that the new boss is likely another flavor of creep, and the next new boss will likely also be a creep, does just mean that “you don’t get into the one per cent without choosing sides,” and you don’t get to choose among the one percent without picking your poison. (See also: Louisiana governor’s election, 1991.)

6. I’m a Clippers fan for many reasons, as a former UCLA Bruin during one of the only pre-CP3 seasons they didn’t suck (thanks, Larry Brown), but Donald Sterling is one of them, sort of. Not only aren’t they the Lakers, when that was always a bad thing (i.e. almost every other year of their existence), not only is their franchise winning percentage (counting the Buffalo and San Diego years) still below .400, and yeah, the godawful drafts, but the Clippers have been owned by Sterling for 33 years. He’s now the longest-tenured owner in the NBA (!) and Paul, Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford, DeAndre Jordan, and the rest of a deep and talented roster has to deal with not only the Thunder on the court but the embarrassment off the court. Sterling doesn’t deserve a title, but what team deserves one more than LA’s finest? Probably the Pacers, but whatever. In the words of Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, it’s too late to turn back now.


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