Friday, May 2, 2014

Our predictable outrage:
Donald Sterling and America

THE MATTER concerning Donald Sterling — for now the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, maybe for always the aspirant to a plantation of his very own — has its origins in the world of professional sports, which is littered with examples of similar cultural intransigence.

From Kenesaw Mountain Landis (the culturally obstinate commissioner of baseball for 24 years) to Marge Schott (the former Cincinnati Reds owner whose racist virulence was couched in the benign package of the grandmother next door), from George P. Marshall, the one-time owner of the Washington Redskins (who refused to hire black players) to the inartful comments of Al Campanis and Jimmy the Greek — there’s been more than enough stupid to go around when it comes to sports figures dealing with race matters.

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But stop me if you haven’t heard this before: A master of some particular universe, smug and rich and secure in his own world, makes a comment or comments of pure unalloyed racial insensitivity — or worse. Said wizard of finance is immediately put in the hopper of the outrage machine of modern media, where the wealthy one is excoriated, reviled, lampooned and chastised. In due time, he’s made to walk some public trail of tears; the tumbrel carries him to the point of his final comeuppance: a fine, a settlement, a punishment, a mea culpa on television. All apologies.

Satisfied with the pound of flesh extracted from the guilty one, we — our media, our politics, society at large — circle back to the torrent of lunacies and tragedies that regularly comprise the news. Crisis averted. We’ve done the right thing. And then it happens again, in some other part of the national life.

This is the vicious circle of our racial conversation. This is why the Sterling matter isn’t really about sports, it’s about America. This is why, at the end of the day, the flap over Donald Sterling says more about us than it says about Donald Sterling.

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BY NOW you’ve heard or heard of the secret audiotape that emerged on TMZ on Friday, in which Sterling arguing with a woman identified as his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, over her appearance with basketball legend Magic Johnson, whom Sterling knows personally, in a photograph posted at Instagram. On the tape on which Sterling later admitted speaking, he says,

"I've known him well, and he should be admired. And I'm just saying that it's too bad you can't admire him privately. And during your entire fucking life, your whole life, admire him -- bring him here, feed him, fuck him, I don't care. You can do anything. But don't put him on an Instagram for the world to see so they have to call me. And don't bring him to my games. OK?"

This breathtaking rhetorical callosity, specific to Magic Johnson, turned into something more panoramic elsewhere in the conversation:

STERLING: Why should you be walking publicly with black people? Why? Is there a benefit to you?

V. STIVIANO: Is it a benefit to me? Does it matter if they’re white or blue or yellow?

STERLING: I guess that you don’t know that. Maybe you’re stupid. Maybe you don’t know what people think of you. It does matter, yeah! It matters. How about the—how about your whole life, every day, you could do whatever you want? You could sleep with them. You could bring them in. You could do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that, and not to bring them to my games.

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Well, the NBA didn’t take kindly to Sterling’s impromptu complexion-based game-admission policy. On Tuesday, in a statement thick with drama, Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner three months on the job, banned Sterling “for life” from the NBA, barred him from any Clippers team activity or appearances at any Clippers facilities. Silver also imposed on Sterling a $2.5 million fine, the maximum under the NBA Constitution. Silver also said he would urge the NBA Board of Governors to force a sale of the team.

Silver’s for-life ban of Sterling from professional basketball raises the stakes on other NBA owners, and by extension other owners of any professional sports teams in any league. As a way of putting owners on notice that there’s a price to be paid for actions (as he put it) “contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect,” Silver’s ban wasn’t a shot across the bow, it was a blast through the hull.

Sterling’s censure by the NBA under Silver is one strong pushback against a deeply embedded behavioral trait: our willingness to equate fortune with wisdom, our inclination to attach an eccentric sagacity to those who acquire great financial wealth. It’s always been there in the culture, the assumption that the richer you are, the smarter you must be, the bigger your contribution to society ... and the more you can get away with. Henry Ford, for example. He was a genius of mass production and marketing who revolutionized the American way of transportational life. The fact that he was a notorious anti-Semite? Pffth. Just a quirk of personality.

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THE TRAJECTORY of Sterling’s descent, his not-quite Shakespearean downfall was both a case of following a familiar script and a departure from that script. It’s true that deep-pocketed team owners rarely get hoist this high on their petards of intolerance. But the storyline has been all too recognizable elsewhere.

It’s not just sports. It’s throughout our culture. It’s sure as hell in our politics. And it’s permeated our everyday discourse; just look at some of the comments of ordinary people provoked to a frothing CAPITALIZED RAGE when the story they comment on has anything to do with race.

There’s a self-satisfaction we enjoy over the resolution of such events, a self-satisfaction we don’t deserve. The unanswered question is just how real our societal satisfaction over the resolution of such controversies can be if we, as a society, don’t learn enough to keep from repeating the same mistakes.

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In August 2006, Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia was on the glide path to re-election to the United States Senate when he was videotaped using the word “macaca” to describe an operative of Allen’s Democratic opponent, Jim Webb — a man of East Indian ancestry. Allen’s use of the word “macaca” (which is both Portuguese for “female monkey” and a disparagement employed by French colonialists in Africa to describe the native black population) went viral. Allen’s campaign promptly went south. Webb won the Senate seat in Virginia for the Democrats. Allen went into the relative wilderness and hasn’t assumed a higher profile, despite more than a few mea culpas.

Paula Deen, the hustler empress of a saturated fat and cholesterol empire, was sued last June by a former employee of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, one of the restaurants Deen owned with her husband. Deen was sued for what Lisa T. Jackson, an Uncle Bubba’s manager, called racial and sexual discrimination. In a court deposition, Deen admitted using racial slurs, especially the N-word, in the past. After sponsors began to bail, Deen shed the required crocodile tears and pledged to improve. She’s been on the comeback trail ever since.

And of course, we can’t forget Michael Richards, the “Seinfeld” star who had an explosive and instantly rationalized N-word-laden meltdown onstage at a West Hollywood comedy club in November 2006. He’s still working — he stars in the TV Land sitcom “Kirstie,” and he’s done cameo appearances on TV. But Richards’ outbursts have largely sidelined him in the teleculture ever since, despite an emotional apology after the incident (on Letterman) and many, many apologies. He cited the onstage incident as his reason for getting out of stand-up comedy in 2007.

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IT’S LIKE whenever there’s jaw-dropping, irrefutable proof of someone’s racially insensitive commentary, the whole country gets caught up in a “Groundhog Day” experience. We know the drill: The automatic responses, the pat conclusions, the well-worn road map of these embarrassments from start to finish — it all fits a pattern of prefabbed outrage.

We know where these things are going from the minute we hear the news. And that predictability is exactly the problem. When outrageous behavior vis-à-vis race matters occurs repeatedly, the pat response to that behavior repeats itself too. Over time, the predictability of the arc of such events — the action, the reaction, the resistance, the sanctions, the humbling — has quietly inured us to ever getting beyond that arc.

In the minds of some people old enough to know better, that predictability reflects a selective denial about race matters, a cafeteria mentality about which racial problems are broad and nationally-felt, and which problems are someone’s own responsibility. Bill O’Reilly, that fount of wisdom on Fox News, said as much on Monday, as the Sterling debacle was exploding: “This is primarily Sterling’s problem, not the country’s problem. He’s shameful, but does not represent anyone other than himself.”

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That predictable five-point arc is the national comfort zone on race matters in the 21st century. And we’re fated to repeat what just happened if we fail to break out of that trajectory.

NBA Commissioner Silver’s action on Tuesday was a powerful, necessary first step to doing exactly that. And it’ll take more such principled stands to punch through our old habits, to work past our proven tendency to go just go far when we talk about race matters, to go just so far when we react to racial bias — and no farther.

So much of the national racial dynamic Is a matter of forgetting to remember. The Donald Sterling episode, its antecedents and the ugly revelations that are guaranteed still to come are now and will be sorry reminders of what we’ll do to remember to forget.

Image credits: Sterling: Associated Press. Sterling audio excerpt: via You Tube. Clippers logo: © 2014 Los Angeles Clippers/National Basketball Association. Deen: via

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