Donald Sterling: Too Big to Dog Whistle

NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave a seminar in crisis management, after which nearly everyone agreed he had done the bold and courageous and, most important, the right thing in banning the racist lecher Donald Sterling and setting up the process by which he’ll almost certainly be tossed from the league.

But let me speak a small word of dissent.

This was not only the easy and obvious thing to do. It was, in fact, the only thing to do.

That is not to diminish Silver’s accomplishment. Most people would have found a way to botch the mission. But the truth is, we already knew how to deal with old-fashioned racism. This is the racism without dog whistles, without coded words, without “makers versus takers,” without reference to inner-city culture.

This is racism at its most repugnant, the kind we’re embarrassed to hear spoken aloud or to be reminded that it still exists.

When Sterling is taped telling his one-third-his-age mistress that he doesn’t mind if she sleeps with black men, but that he doesn’t want her out parading with them so that everyone knows the woman he sleeps with also sleeps with black men, when he doesn’t want her to be photographed with black people — like Magic Johnson! — or bringing them to his games because they’re black, he has moved into territory so vile that he can hardly be allowed re-entry into the civilized world.

Sure, there is the uncomfortable fact that this Donald is the same Donald that the NBA has always known and tolerated. Yes, he has always been a racist, for his 30-plus years as incompetent owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Over those years, he has been accused by one employee, NBA legend Elgin Baylor, of running a plantation-like franchise. He has been sued for racial discrimination as a landlord. In testimony, Sterling was quoted as saying his black tenants smelled, his Mexican tenants were lazy and that he liked Korean tenants because they were too meek to complain. His NBA fellow owners were also too meek, or maybe just too unconcerned, to publicly complain about Sterling’s behavior. Judge not lest ye be judged?

But when the voice on the audiotape is matched to Sterling and when Sterling is matched to racist comments about those he employs, it is not a First Amendment issue. He has done actual damage to the product. Sponsors have fled the Clippers. Doc Rivers, the African-American coach, would almost certainly leave the team. Sterling’s largely African-American team of players would demand trades. Imagine the owner who defended Sterling. He would become the next Sterling.

So, yeah. Kick him out. There was too much pressure to do anything else. His words came only days after erstwhile right-wing folk hero Cliven Bundy outed himself as a racist, a-wondering about whether “the Negro” wasn’t better off picking cotton back in slave days. It was almost a parody of what liberals are all too certain that all the Cliven Bundys of the world must be like.

Bundy caused a crisis for some on the right who seemed surprised that an anti-government, violence-threatening, militia-enabled crank might also be a racist. Fox News, which had helped make him into a hero, didn’t know what to do when the news broke. For hours, according to Fox media guy Howie Kurtz, the network reacted to the news by simply ignoring it.

Meanwhile, our own GOP gubernatorial debate team — the Beauprez-Kopp-Gessler Trio — embarrassed themselves by doing much the same, defending Bundy in a 9News debate without ever once mentioning racism, because, I guess, it would mean having to admit that racism actually still exists.

But the real racism confronting our society is not Bull Connor racism. We don’t tolerate that any more. Fifty years after Connor, we elect a black president, but we also tolerate birthers. We don’t believe in segregated schools, either, but we don’t seem to notice as schools have become re-segregated. We don’t deny people the right to vote because of their race. But Republican-majority legislatures pass voter ID laws that directly impact minorities for the simple reason that these minorities tend to vote Democratic. We don’t believe in racial inequality, but we vote against affirmative action laws designed to fix the very real racial inequality that still exists. We have Paul Ryan, in arguing against big-government social policy, blaming urban poverty on inner-city “culture,” only to claim, when challenged, that he wasn’t talking about African-American culture.

The most interesting arguments on race are taking place in the Supreme Court, where the Sterling/Bundy part of the world is, in the words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wished away. Chief Justice John Roberts is famously quoted thusly on racial remedies: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Sotomayor, in a recent dissent, sent out a direct challenge to Roberts, first quoting him and then writing: “It is a sentiment out of touch with reality … While the enduring hope is that race should not matter, the reality is that too often it does. Racial discrimination … is not ancient history.”

She’s not talking about Sterling or Bundy, per se. She’s talking about the time in which we live, when unreconstructed racism can get you kicked out of the NBA, but when the more nuanced varieties are unremarked upon and often unnoticed.

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