Donald Draper, Roger Sterling, and Donald Sterling
I was absolutely blown away by the reaction to the racist comments Donald Sterling made. No, I didn’t say I was blown away by the racist stuff I heard Sterling say – I actually expected that. I was shocked by our reaction to it.
I was actually more offended that people suddenly pretended to be bothered by the fact that Sterling is a blatant racist. Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers since before I was born. I’ve been paying attention to basketball since I could crawl, so I could’ve told you five years ago that he was a racist.
He’s literally been saying stuff like he said last week since he bought the team in the early 80’s. Sworn testimony saying Mexicans are lazy people who lounge around the house and “smoke and drink all day.” Sworn testimony calling black people “stinky.” Well-respected NBA great Elgin Baylor who worked for the Clippers as a GM tried to tell us all this stuff only four years ago.
You may have not known, but basically anyone who’s paid close attention to the NBA or covered it closely in sports media has known exactly who/what Donald Sterling is: A documented racist, slumlord, bigot, chauvinist, and just all-around asshole.
No one cared. No one did anything about it. Not David Stern. Not even the newly-anointed greatest civil rights advocate we’ve seen since MLK himself, Adam Silver (who was deputy commissioner).
So I wasn’t shocked. I was actually a little surprised it was as big a story as we all made it into. “Wait, an 80-year old notorious for saying racist crap was caught saying he didn’t like his mistress hanging out with black dudes in the privacy of his own home? GET OUTTA HERE!”
Let’s look past – for a moment – that if someone set up audio recorders or video of everything that’s ever gone on in our homes and it got released in your workplace for everyone to see you’d probably be asked to resign or quit or you’d get straight up fired.
Let’s look past – for a moment – the fact that Donald Sterling owns the Clippers and while players and employees are not his property, the Clipper organization as a franchise is his property.
We actually banned and fined someone for expressing views in the privacy of his own home. Silver could have just as easily got up there and said “From a business perspective, Sterling has caused irreparable damage to the NBA image and caused a situation in which the whole league will suffer financially for it” and then banned the guy for life. I could get on board with that. But he didn’t do that. Sterling didn’t tweet something racist, he didn’t update his Facebook status with an angry post about black people, he didn’t even say the “n-word” at the office one day. Adam Silver punished Sterling for being a closet racist.
And look, I’m not defending the guy’s bigotry. As a biracial guy, I think what Sterling said is despicable and it’s the worst kind of racism. This wasn’t a Riley Cooper incident. It’s not just ignorant rambling of racial slurs or an attempt to yell an insult at someone to tear them down using a racial epithet. Sterling has deep-seeded archaic beliefs about the superiority of the white race in America. He genuinely believes that through some misguided sense of liberal, progressive thought, blacks are now allowed to coexist with whites under the condition that it still makes sense hierarchically.
How he thinks: Rich, old, white sugar daddy with young half-black, half-Latina woman. That works. White male owner, black player-employees. Their talents and merit don’t make them rich. Their wealth has been enabled by white men like Sterling who allow them to be rich and we should all thank him for it. Sure, blacks, Mexicans, and Koreans are free men, so obviously they should be allowed to live freely amongst the whites, but only in conditions which suit their naturally dirty, lazy predispositions.
Sterling is 80 years old. At age 25, Donald Tokowitz legally changed his last name to “Sterling” to sound less-Jewish to make things easier for him in business. He was born in the 30’s, raised in L.A. throughout the 40’s, and started his legal practice and real estate empire in 1961. Donald Sterling is so well-fit for an episode of Mad Men that his name is literally a combination of two of its main protagonists Donald Draper and Roger Sterling.
Ahh yes! Mad Men. I love that show! The drama, the sex, the style, the drinking in the office, the vibrant colors, that artistic depiction of 1960’s America, the sexism, the racism – err, what? Yeah, so whether we like it or not, there was a lot of racism and sexism still going on during the time period where Donald Sterling first started building the foundation for his business conglomerate. I imagine he was a lot like Donald Draper or Roger Sterling. Objectifying the cute secretaries, dealing with the nuisance of hiring blacks to keep up the appearance of being progressive, the whole nine yards.
We excuse Mad Men (I mean, hell I’ve seen every episode of that show!) because we understand that people aren’t perfect and that either through socialization or just lack of exposure, a much larger portion of white America held racist views towards blacks or just accepted the racism around them. In fact, most of them didn’t even believe they were being racist. Just like Donald Sterling. The only difference is Donald Sterling still thinks he lives in that world. He watches an episode of Mad Men and thinks America should still be that way.
Side Note: Take ten minutes and actually listen to the entire tape. Sterling doesn’t actually believe or think that he is a racist. His gold-digger girlfriend is actually trying quite valiantly to get him to understand that he IS a racist and Sterling just doesn’t see it that way.
Sterling wasn’t an ad man though; he made his money in real estate and law. The whites were the lawyers and the landlords and the blacks were the criminals and his low-income tenants – or so he thought.
They could also really play some basketball. What better way to deflect criticism of racism, to avoid facing the harsh reality that he was trying to live in a pre Civil Rights world that had long passed him by than to basically buy off the black community!?
After his discrimination lawsuits, Sterling made several contributions to the NAACP to facilitate brilliantly planned image rehabilitation. Add that to the fact that he employs black athletes making millions and the guy looks like black Peter Pan. It’s actually genius. “See, he can’t be a racist! Look how much money he’s given black people!” And we (black people) bought it.
Or maybe, he bought us. And now we’re left wondering how he could possibly think that the black people on his basketball team are his property; people who sold out for a few thousand bucks and responded to blatant racism in a discrimination suit with an achievement award from the organization which was designed to champion their advancement.
The only difference between Donald Sterling and any other 80 year-old white guy (who isn’t racist today) is that when times changed, Sterling wasn’t forced to change with them because he always had enough money to throw at every one of life’s moments where he was faced with his racism. Whether through hiring lawyers, settling lawsuits with millions, buying a basketball team, or donating to the NAACP, Sterling has never been forced to change.
Last week, in a (very cryptic) interview with an LA lifestyle magazine, Sterling said, “I wish I had just paid her off.” Of course you do, Donald. Every time your racism has come to light you’ve done exactly that, and it’s just gone away. But that’s our fault. We’ve been letting you do that for years.
I’m not defending Donald Sterling. I’ve just accepted that he is merely a product of ridiculous amounts of wealth, ignorance, the time in which he was raised and a society that has allowed open racists to own basketball teams and slums for decades.
What have always been in America for centuries are people who stand up and call guys like Sterling out on their bullshit. Adam Silver didn’t really do that. He can’t do that. He’s not supposed to do that. He did exactly what he was supposed to do. He crushed Sterling and he had the public support to do it so good for him.
But don’t sell me Adam Silver like he’s somehow now a champion of the black community and the little man. He did exactly what he had to do to keep those players from marching off that court. And now, the NBA can move on as per usual. Fantastic.
There has been no real strike back at Donald Sterling. He’s going to make a gazillion dollars off the Clippers and die in a coffin coated with $100 bills – and I guarantee you he’ll sleep as peacefully in that coffin as he has every night of his entire life. Because no one has called him on his bullshit.
I’m not saying I think the Clippers should have boycotted that game. I’m not saying I would have if I was in that situation. That’s a tough spot I never want to be in. But I would have liked to have seen someone (say, Chris Paul) years ago say, “You know what? I don’t care what contract they’re offering me, I’m not going to play for that racist.” It would’ve been really cool to hear Blake Griffin say, “Nobody owns me. Donald Sterling can either sell this basketball team or find another power forward.” It would’ve been really cool to hear Doc Rivers say that he reached out to Donald Sterling and asked for an explanation of why he said what he said, why he doesn’t want to be associated with black people, and requested an apology to his players and the black community at large. No one has stood up and tried to really get at the heart of Sterling’s lingering, deep-seeded racism. We aren’t having a conversation about why Mad Men culture still rears its ugly head sometimes in 2014. We’re too busy beating up on a frail 80 year-old man.
And if we think this story is over, you still don’t know anything about Donald Sterling – a man who has spent his whole life in civil court, armed with millions of dollars to fight Adam Silver tooth and nail. The craziest part of it all is that he might actually win, or at least fight it long enough to own the Clippers until he dies. Because Donald Sterling still doesn’t get that he’s a racist. We still haven’t explained it to him.
A boycott on that court in LA last week would have been a sad day for the NBA in the short term. But the tumbling value of the Clippers franchise in the coming days would have undoubtedly forced a sale of that team. Adam Silver did his job and he did it well. I’m not so sure we did ours. We won the battle at the risk of losing the war.