Monday, May 5, 2014

Donald Sterling: A Tale of Black, White, and Green

If you’ve just emerged from a coma or were binge-watching Game of Thrones episodes, then you may be unaware of the messy and disturbing media firestorm surrounding Donald Sterling, wealthy owner of the Los Angeles Clippers pro basketball team. Allow me to recap.

The controversy began when a tape surfaced of a conversation between the 80-year-old Sterling and his half-black, half-Hispanic “girlfriend” V. Stiviano, a half-century younger than the billionaire. Unaware that he was being recorded, a distressed Sterling complained that she was embarrassing him by publicly associating with black people – posting, for example, an Instagram pic of herself with former NBA star Magic Johnson. The tabloid site TMZ got hold of the conversation, and the rest is hysteria.

The internet and news media sizzled with outrage over Sterling’s racist remarks. Everybody had to get into the act, to paraphrase Jimmy Durante. Some argued that Sterling didn’t actually do anything racist, and that his free speech had been infringed upon by the secret recording, while others rebutted that the NBA has every right and obligation to punish him. Republicans and Democrats both tried to link him to the other party – as if the racism of a single man somehow confirms the racism of an entire party. Racial ambulance-chasers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton called for bans and vigils. Celebrities like Oprah weighed in, of course; perhaps with a nod toward last year’s Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave, director Spike Lee accused Sterling of having a “slave master’s mentality.”

Now a lifetime ban from the NBA has been handed down to Sterling, as well as a $2.5 million fine, the harshest the NBA constitution allows. Sterling may also be forced to sell the Clippers, in which case they may be picked up by – holy poetic justice! – Magic Johnson and his partners (there is even speculation that Johnson himself somehow engineered this whole scenario, which would certainly thicken the plot). 

But former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a blistering opinion piece rightly excoriating all those participating in the “Olympic tryouts for Morally Superior Head Shaking.” He reserved particular venom for the manipulative “girlfriend” Stiviano and wondered why it took her tape to spark everyone’s outrage about Sterling.

What he was referring to is the billionaire’s less-than-sterling reputation as one of the largest property owners and landlords in the L.A. area. Back in 2008 the LA Weekly posted a stunning summary of his violations of civil rights and tenants’ rights, in addition to, as Talking Points Memo (TPM) puts it, his “shameful reputation as a man who abuses his employees, acknowledges paying for sex with prostitutes, and has had a string of girlfriends who live in expensive homes and drive luxury cars” that Sterling has paid for.

And yet, with spectacularly awkward timing, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been set to give Sterling a Lifetime Achievement Award next month, an honor they are now rescinding, of course, while neglecting to mention that Sterling already has a 2009 NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award as well as a 2008 NAACP President’s Award.

Why is, or was, Sterling such an unlikely favorite of the NAACP? The answer is not black or white but green: he has been a significant donor to the organization – perhaps to whitewash his reputation – and the NAACP was happy to oblige despite his record of discrimination. TPM described the organization as “simply another cog in the Sterling PR machine.”

As for Stiviano, she was sued just last month by Sterling’s wife Rochelle for the return of the $1.8-million L.A. duplex, a Ferrari, two Bentleys and a Range Rover that her husband bought for Stiviano last year (Rochelle was apparently upset that her name wasn’t on the deed too).

In fact, as easy as it is to dogpile on Donald Sterling, the real story seems as much about money as racism: for money, the NAACP turned a blind eye to Sterling’s sins; for money, his wife turned a blind eye to his “girlfriends”; for money, the “girlfriends” turned a blind eye to their own prostitution – until the glaring light of public scrutiny forced everyone to distance themselves from the radioactive Sterling.

Rochelle, for example, originally defended her husband against the charge of racism, saying “it’s not true”; but when it became impossible to deny, she threw him under the bus for his “despicable views or prejudices” and “small-mindedness.” The NAACP released a statement about standing up and confronting racism blah blah blah. Stiviano is currently hiding under a giant visor.

Abdul-Jabbar firmly believes that people like Sterling should be paraded in humiliation across “the modern town square of the television screen.” I couldn’t agree more that racists (of all races) should be exposed, but allowing the media and internet mobs to serve as judge, jury and executioner is a dangerous game. Donald Sterling may have made his bed and now must lie in it, but less culpable lives are easily destroyed by the media rush to judgment.

The ugly saga isn’t over yet – for one thing, Stiviano’s very suspect motivation for making and leaking the possibly illegal recording has yet to be revealed – but one thing is clear: the tale will have no heroes or winners, only media exploitation, opportunistic posturing, political smearing, and people covering their greedy tracks.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/30/14)