The Owner and the Owned: A Discussion About Donald Sterling

Rembert Browne: So Donald Sterling sees himself as a kind and merciful plantation owner. Well then.

Wesley, there’s so much to discuss: Sterling’s history of racism; his ability to be completely nondiscriminatory with regard to bigotry; the racist, guilt-trip filled, “world’s worst boyfriend” exchange between him and his then-girlfriend; the response from the basketball community; and talks of boycotts and protests and lost sponsorships, to name just a few. And most have been discussed. And discussed well.

One of the things I’m interested in is why this situation hit home. Or did it not? I know for me, sometimes overt racism doesn’t register as much, because it’s easy to disregard the crazies (Cliven Bundy, Westboro Baptist Church, Internet trolls who wake up just to call you “nigger,” etc.). But this still got to me. Intensely. Interested in your thoughts. Let’s start there and see where it goes.

Wesley Morris: Rembert.

Racism is like TV right now. There’s too much to follow. Where does anybody start with this? Only now, for instance, am I halfway through Season 1 of Game of Thrones. It’s a similar thing with Donald Sterling. I’d heard stuff here and there but had never experienced all of it. So, courtesy of Deadspin, some writers’ sites, and cable news, I binge-watched, more or less, decades of this guy. I’ve just removed my hazmat suit and am ready to type. First: Where do you start?

It might seem obvious and therefore not worth addressing — Rembert, you mentioned “plantation” in your first sentence — but the history that Sterling has been so casually invoking is worth thinking about, and that’s the matter of ownership. To be clear, Donald Sterling is a white man who owns a team in the NBA, a league that was 76.3 percent black as of 2013. He bought the Clippers in the early 1980s, during the sad San Diego years. He began his career as a divorce and personal-injury lawyer. He then moved into California real estate development (towers and that sort of thing), and in 2006 was sued by the Justice Department, which alleged housing discrimination. The suit claims he didn’t want to rent to blacks in Beverly Hills and to non-Koreans in Koreatown. A 2009 Bill Plaschke column in the Los Angeles Times about former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor’s anti-discrimination lawsuit against Sterling also quoted from the Justice Department suit, citing an instance when Sterling said he didn’t want to rent to black people because they “smell and attract vermin.” That story preceded a jaw-dropping Peter Keating investigative profile of Sterling that contained, among much else, the observation that he doesn’t like “Mexican men because they smoke, drink and just hang around the house.”

Ownership is important to Sterling. So are appearances. As an adult he changed his surname from Tokowitz to Sterling, which is quite a choice. It trumps “Donald Trump.” He doesn’t own as much as The Donald, but he might be a more dedicated racist. In any case, ownership matters because it brings us back to the plantation, the second primal scene of racial conflict in this country (the first, of course, being the American plains). I’ve always found it impossible to ignore the reality that American sports — and especially the NBA — have almost always been about white men owning and trading mostly black men. Civility, progress, and lots of money introduced a lubricant for decorum. We don’t have to talk about how much the NBA is like the old South because, in theory, this is black athletes signing up for and being paid well to work for white people. Very superficially, it’s all on the up-and-up. Yet you’re never not aware of who’s in charge. The David Stern era, with its union squabbles and enforced dress code, made me feel owned.

What these Sterling disclosures do is present a positive biopsy. If you’ve always suspected racism exists at the top of some teams here and abroad, well, here are some fresh results. It’s so funny listening to a particular type of old white man talk about how his days are numbered. Every time a moment like this happens, you see how the old power dynamic never changes even when the plantation owner is paying you many millions of dollars. Between certain politicians, certain broadcasters, and that Cliven Bundy, these old white guys — to the extent that they’re going out at all — are going out with a bang.

Rembert, what fascinates me is where this leaves anybody who works for Donald Sterling. This isn’t like finding out your non-black best friend is a racist. It’s worse. You can quit your best friend. It’s harder to quit working. But when your boss is on the record as not wanting his mistress to be seen with you because of your race, what do you do? It’s someone telling you that you’re less than human. No amount of money could mollify the insult. I mean, how many cheeks do you turn until you run out of cheeks?

Browne: It leaves those who work for Donald Sterling in a place where they’re rudely brought down to earth. Especially the players. And even more especially the black players. Not to say that being a famous, wildly rich, idolized basketball player shelters anyone from racism or all the ills of being black in America, but when something like this happens — when employees are made to feel like worthless pawns and representations of some inferior species — the glitz and glamour and prestige suddenly disappear. And like that, instantly, someone like DeAndre Jordan is just a 25-year-old black employee, one with some decisions to make. Decisions that involve answering questions like, “What should I do?,” “What can I do?,” and ultimately “What will I do?”

This could stem from a brash streak that has only sharpened as I’ve gotten older, Wes, but I typically feel like those in positions of influence should uphold clear principles, especially if it could get them in trouble. Bearing that load should be part of obtaining power. Not all young black employees in their first years in the workforce who find out their boss is a racist lunatic can afford to stand up to that boss; the penalty could ultimately lead to financial and occupational demise. But these players can. They can afford to, figuratively and literally. This is a horrible circumstance, but it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity to put Donald Sterling and anyone who thinks like him in their place. An opportunity not only to stand up to him, but to ruin him. To have his name equated with scum forever. At some point, that has to happen, because this situation with Donald Sterling and the Clippers is so much bigger than basketball.

With that said, I’m fine with their pregame gesture. Because they did something. As a team. And not just the black players, but the entire team. But I hope that’s not the only gesture, and I’m sure it won’t be. The wave of Clippers sponsors dropping in the past 12 hours alone (Sprint, CarMax, Virgin Airlines, Red Bull, State Farm, AquaHydrate, Kia) shows that open defiance is not only in the air, but welcome. The extent of the coverage of what the Clippers should or shouldn’t have done, however, was a reminder that the removal of the jerseys was a secondary response.

Symbolism should never be disregarded, but it’s nothing compared to the real horror at the center of this issue — a horror that’s much harder to articulate on television or within the scope of a damning tweet — the idea of being backed into a corner of servitude and not having a great next move. This idea of taking a stance, and then having to go back to work for the man you denounce? I mean, it’s a complete shame these guys had to play that game. A shame they had to eventually bear the name of his franchise across their chests. The players on the team can’t just rise up and kick him out, because, right now, maddeningly, he still has the upper hand.

You alluded to this, but this latest disclosure (which, as everyone now knows, is just the most recent episode in a long history of bigotry) forces you to wonder about everyone else. Is Sterling just the one who got caught? You have to believe there are others who think just like him. And not just within sports, but everywhere. That this pernicious universe remains in which blacks are entertainers, and often rewarded for that entertainment, but are institutionally — purposefully — kept from positions of power. Pick an industry and you can see that play out — that is, if you care to look.

Also, completely random: Matt Kemp (who was also mentioned among the unsavory InstaBlacks), walked out to “Black or White” by Michael Jackson in the Dodgers game Sunday. I like that gesture, it’s very clever, but would have preferred “Mississippi Goddam.”

Morris: Oh, Rem. More Nina Simone in all sports, please! But that song would blow California up. Still. In 2014. At her best (one of them anyway), she was Public Enemy with a cold. I do think “Black or White” was a daring sub-tweet. It sounds like a platitudinous pop song — “It don’t matter if you’re black or white” — but as sung to the Ku Klux Klan.

I’m with you on the inside-out warm-ups and black wristbands and piles of clothes in the middle of the court: It was an acknowledgement. Presumably, there will be more. LeBron James has evolved into a premier taker of stands in American sports. He’s not Muhammad Ali — he hasn’t seized the culture or the nation the way Ali managed to; and while the climate still contains some racial toxicity, it’s less charged. James is speaking his mind — into a reporter’s microphone and not on Twitter — and his willingness to Go There (as he did with that famous photo with the Heat in hoodies not long after Trayvon’s death) continues to fascinate me.

Yesterday, in Charlotte, a reporter asked James whether he was angry about Sterling’s comments. Here’s what he said:

I’m not angry. Just disappointed more than anything. There is only 30 owners and 400-plus of us. For a player, I just think … I put my … I can only imagine if a player came out and said something of that stature what would happen to us as players. So, I believe in Adam [Silver], I believe in the NBA and they have to do something and do something very fast and quickly before this really gets out of hand. Like I said, there is no room for Donald Sterling in our league, man. There it is.

He made other remarks, but in this one, just by delineating the imbalance of balance of power in the league, he quietly reiterates the trouble with ownership and the impression of being owned. James states the problem with the imbalance and places its moral responsibility at the feet of the league. It’s basically a threat to Adam Silver — a humanistic one. That, I think, is an Obama-era method for a person of color to cry foul: demand that the legislative system address the affront. It doesn’t work for the president, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong to do it. It means there’s still something wrong with the system.

But it can’t just be LeBron James and Michael Jordan speaking up. Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird, and TV and sports executives have to denounce Sterling, too. Of course, people of color are going to do it. But they’re used to being treated like a fire hydrant. How refreshing — and politically advantageous — would it have been, after that nonsense with Cliven Bundy last week, for Rand Paul or Paul Ryan to say, “Hey, America, I won’t be that dog.” It might be useful for people other than the pissed-on — for more rich, prominent white people — to get pissed off.

One of the strains of complaint that has emerged from this headache is that African Americans have only themselves to blame for Sterling not wanting to have black people at his basketball games. They’re uncouth and craven and stand for nothing and stand up for less. This sociocultural perception of black people is of a piece with Rancher Bundy’s remarks last week that they were better off as slaves. His remarks contained a sentence constructed to make it seem as though they were incarcerating themselves. The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP honored Sterling in 2009 and was scheduled to do so again this year (he’s been a financial donor for years). It has changed its mind about the second laurel while leaving vague whether it plans to desist in laundering his image. But the fact remains that Sterling was a donor, and, as such, does call into question, once again, the “advancement” part of the NAACP.

I’m always open to a conversation about the state of the black self-image, but not one that in any way occurs in the shadow of the racial and racist comments and behavior of Donald Sterling or Cliven Bundy or Donald Trump or Paul Ryan, not about the so-called culture of poverty. Sterling didn’t want to keep the residents of Watts or Inglewood away from or out of his enterprises (well, he didn’t only want to). He wanted to keep away the likes of Matt Kemp and Magic Johnson, who is now rumored to be interested in buying the Clippers. We’ve left the neighbors of culture and poverty and are strolling down the big, fat boulevard of race.

Quickly: I can’t believe you and I have made it this far without unpacking the actual recording that started it all. This is an astonishing conversation. The 80-year-old Sterling and his decades-younger mistress, V. Stiviano (Sterling’s been married for over 50 years to Shelly Stein), talk about race and racism not as combatants, but lovers.

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Were it not for the mention of Instagram, Matt Kemp, and a couple of other totems of modernism, this could be a plantation master talking to his mistress about keeping the slaves in the field and out of his house. Actually, this more or less is a plantation master talking to his mistress, who has identified as Mexican and black and has the sort of cheekbones, eyes, and jawline you get when you live in Beverly Hills. It’s striking and heartbreaking how fed up with his hypocrisy she sounds (the recording is hers, but you don’t hear a “performance”; although Donald Trump called Fox & Friends this morning to say that, yes, Sterling said bad things, but Stiviano was disgusting for setting him up). It’s just as perversely moving to hear Sterling insist that he has no power to change the culture. As the owner of a team staffed with black men, who have black and interracial families, he doesn’t feel an obligation to fight racism. He feels a moral duty to accept his lot in life as a rich white person of power and keep the help away from him. And his mistress ought to know better.

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In Sterling’s thinking on the recording, Stiviano being the sort of person with whom he doesn’t want her to publicly fraternize is secondary to her status as an erotic exception. Classification as one type of property trumps classification as another. Her being near Magic Johnson and Matt Kemp defies the terms he’s set for their relationship. She has defied being property, and it upsets him. This is one of the most complexly true conversations I’ve ever heard about race. It’s a white man grappling with his privilege while doing nothing to jeopardize it. It’s a black woman brought to question the disgusting nature of her having been privileged in the first place. He thrives in his hypocrisy. She appears to resent hers. Whether Stiviano was compensated to record this evening and submit it to the media, her having so done constitutes even a tiny escape from self-loathing.

Rem, did you know that next month, there’s another movie set to open about Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave and lover? This never gets old, and even when it appears to have changed, it hasn’t. Goddamn, indeed.

Browne: The only thing I slightly disagree with here is the nature of her “performance.” I do slightly hear one on the part of Stiviano — there are a few “come on, Donald, say something racist for me” alley-oop moments — but on the whole, she seems to be routinely shocked at how bad Sterling’s beliefs and stances have gotten. Even for him.

When she says, “Honey, if it makes you happy, I will remove all the black people from my Instagram,” it was a god-honest jaw drop. It’s pretty amazing how something so quasi-trivial as Instagram photos could make me feel so temporarily worthless. Especially considering that it’s ultimately what Sterling wanted.

Before going on with the tape, something you said earlier reminded me of a clip. This notion of Sterling almost in a mini-panic, feeling like the blacks are rampantly growing in number and strength and rights and literacy. Remember that scene in The Original Kings of Comedy when Cedric the Entertainer is talking about space and white people?

White people love space movies, love movies about the moon and Mars, where they can be leaving our ass down here on Earth. That’s what they think. That they gonna leave us here on Earth and they gonna move to the moon.

I feel like were Donald Sterling to hear this clip, he’d be sitting at the edge of his chair, downing a bag of popcorn, crying tears of joy at the prospect — only to have his world shattered by Cedric’s next line.

Ain’t gon’ happen. Ya’ll move to the moon, dammit we coming to the moon.

So yeah. Just felt the need to share that.

Back to the tape: It really does have all you could want from a bigotry case study. Perfect material for a race, class, and gender sociology seminar. So much so that it begins to feel not real. Not in the sense that you’re surprised someone could think this way  — not even close. But more in the sense that this whole thing — from the racial revelations to the symbolism of the players’ uniform removal — starts giving off strong vibes of a Disney race movie. Suddenly, Doc Rivers becomes Coach Boone in Remember the Titans. You have your team, composed of individuals clearly wanting to respond in a variety of ways, some more vocal than others. And, of course, there’s your clear racist villain, y’know, the one who doesn’t want his daughter (in real life, actually played by his then-mate) fraternizing with that colored boy. With films like these, as well as this real-life Clippers situation, the common ground is the general lack of nuance. To borrow an oft-too-perfect Twitter meme, there’s no “gotta hear both sides” in this story. There’s only one side. Really, one of the few questions we have to ask ourselves is how we let him get this far. How’d we let him stay owner after all he’s done? How’d we even let him get close to an NAACP lifetime achievement award, as well as seemingly finagle a mutually beneficial relationship with the organization’s L.A. branch, after the open disrespect he’s shown toward [insert minority group]? As DJ/writer/social commentator Jay Smooth smartly notes, why is it that racist words incite attention, while racist practices can easily be swept under the rug?

With Sterling, the damage has been done, but it’s not too late. Because there’s no reason why he would suddenly stop now. Or change his ways. The only way for him to stop is for him to be stopped. And, you know, then to be treated like Sisyphus or Tantalus, or whichever Greek mythological character who taught a lesson forever that you prefer.

I’m all about the bad eggs outing themselves, by the way. It’s obviously a shame that all this happened, but there are few things I love more than the coverts accidentally overting themselves. It’s like finally catching that dastardly elusive fish that’s been getting away from you all season and not throwing it back in the water. Because you’re going to take a picture with it. And then take it home. And then cook it. And then eat it. And then look at what’s left and do this, over and over and over again:

Every Clippers employee and black season-ticket holder should get the opportunity to do this to Donald Sterling. Minimum five minutes each.

Also, to briefly backtrack, how great is it that we live in a world where LeBron is pushing Jordan? I don’t want to pat him on the back too much, given that it’s what he should be doing, but it is wonderful to have the most popular, most talented athlete of a generation be someone who understands the power of his platform — and approach issues not just as a basketball player, but also as a father of two young black sons who he knows will be privileged, but understands will not always be respected equally, regardless of their lineage. If there’s any silver lining in all this mess, you’re right, it’s the reality of adult LeBron continuing to impress off the court.

One question: If Sterling’s your boss — you, Wesley Morris, writer of things, not basketball player (no disrespect to your legendary hooping past) — what’s your play a day after? Or a week after? I bring this up only because I’ve had quite a few conversations with friends this weekend, ones surrounding the idea of “What would I do?”

Morris: Ay yi yi. I don’t know. I hate this question because it deserves an answer, and I’m always afraid of what it might be, that it might be inadequate, that I should turn into Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale or Oprah on Main Street in The Color Purple. Let’s say we’re dealing with generic absolutes and we’re just talking a workplace and an employer, and the employer (by the way, I’m done with “owner” because I’m not owned; and professional sports might, at least, consider the implications of a term like “ownership”) is revealed to have committed some racist act …

You know what? I don’t think absolutes work here, actually. I wouldn’t quit. Why should I? The employer would have to go. Presumably, I’d be part of a team of coworkers and we could band together to do something. This happens in workplaces. The “what to do” here is simpler to me than what women have to deal with all the time, and the stations of guilt and self-recrimination and uncertainty sometimes required just to say “something happened.” With people of color and insult, there can be uncertainty, hypersensitivity, and ambiguity — graycism. But usually there’s nothing gray about it.

The question is: Does the team have the standing to demand change? Does the team have the power to demand respect? Does it have any agency? This, of course, is at the heart of this problem, right? Players at Northwestern took a vote for voicehood, for union, for not being treated like chattel and ATMs at the same time. College athletes aren’t really even asking for a debit. They’re asking for more food. This is the practical problem with ownership in 1814 and 2014: Somebody’s going to feel owned. This is the one area in this conversation where a clear racial headache naturally dovetails with the issue of class.    

What if we took the directly personal off the table (“personal” as it related to you and me) and dealt with a more fixed absolute? What if we looked at this through the lens of the Washington Redskins name and the team’s (sigh) owner, Dan Snyder? (As a point of trivia, it should be noted that Snyder shares the same initials as Sterling — my friend Mark says they should switch teams and save on monogramming — and those happen to be the letters in Michael Jackson’s “D.S.,” a song he wrote and recorded at the height of his paranoid persecution complex, which resulted in some underrated music. You could easily change the name in the chorus: “Don Sterling is a cold man.” Sterling also shares some of his name with a Mad Men character; in last week’s episode, the ancient Bert Cooper walked into reception and saw Dawn’s pretty black face behind the desk and told Joan, her supervisor, that he’d prefer to have a white face out in front. This is the culture of tradition that, in the audio recording, Sterling swears he isn’t capable of changing.) 

Anyway, for me, the Redskins present a more astounding example of the intersections of race, power, history, and ownership. Sterling has no defense for all the things he said — no moral defense, anyway; although we haven’t spent enough time on his nauseating but perversely touching “it’s part of my culture to own” assertion to Stiviano. He sounds resigned to fulfill the “destiny” his whiteness affords. Snyder can barely concede that anything’s wrong, and the longer he continues to throw money at a problem that needs none, the more reprehensible he permits himself to become. I don’t like the phrase “How does [insert pronoun] sleep at night” — who cares! But here I truly do wonder: How? How? How, Rembert: How?

Browne: I have to assume he sleeps at night because he has people to confide in who share his beliefs. Not wanting black people in your arena, feeling as if racism is the culture and that’s the end of it — that’s a tough fight to spearhead alone. I have to imagine it’s pretty lonely to be that one Klan member in a town, which is why it makes sense to move near your boys. Because when you’re among like-minded individuals who can brainwash each other, I’m sure sleep is quite easy. So yes, that Legion of Doom–like “they” Sterling continuously evokes (referring to the calls he gets about the blacks on Stiviano’s Instagram) are probably the ones who not only keep Sterling at ease, but will potentially keep him thinking that he’s still in the right.

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You know things are messed up when the sight of a fellow sports team owner on a mobile app can drive Sterling up the wall, simply because the person is black. It’s fascinating, because so many things pertaining to race are often linked with class, regionalism, occupation, and a number of other demographic characteristics. This is one of those rare times when you’re dealing with a pure racist. That, for me, is the grandest takeaway. It doesn’t matter if you’re a normal civilian or a Hall of Famer worth more than $700 million. That common denominator of black is just too much for Donald Sterling to handle. And, as he told Stiviano, following her apology for her skin complexion, it’s not the skin color. It’s what that blackness represents in the culture that matters. And how it should stay that way. And that questioning that shows some kind of idiocy about how the world works.

I’m done. Let’s give this guy his scarlet letter and then watch as Magic Johnson buys the Clippers, an event that could potentially be the greatest middle finger of recent memory.

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Filed Under: NBA, Racism, Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers, TMZ, DOnald Sterling