On April 29, 2014, NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver held what will probably be the most important press conference of his tenure, even though he had only been in the position for 88 days. During the press conference, Silver banned Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers since 1981 from the NBA for racially charged comments made during a conversation with his female friend. Silver also fined Mr. Sterling 2.5 million dollars (the highest amount under the bylaws of the NBA Constitution) and set the wheels in motion to convince the other 29 owners to force Sterling into selling the team and relinquishing all rights. The entire situation became a watershed moment for the league and maybe even the country. Sterling’s comments are reminiscent of times thought long past and ideas that America wishes to forget about. However, Sterling is by no means a first time offender.
Former General Manager Elgin Baylor charged in a racial discrimination suit that Sterling ran the Clippers with the "vision of a Southern plantation–type structure" asking him to create a team of “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.” Sterling paid the highest fine ever levied (2.75 million dollars) by the Department of Justice in a housing discrimination suit, for systematically denying rental opportunities to Black and Latino families at his Southern California properties. In official court documents, he stated that "Black tenants smell and attract vermin." His estranged wife, Rochelle Sterling, who distanced herself from the remarks, has recently been found to have played a role in the discrimination suit herself. Court documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times show that Mrs. Sterling posed as a Health Department inspector and during a site visit, remarked: “Oh, my God. This is so filthy. I can’t remodel my apartments the way that I want because Latinos are so filthy.” The Sterling’s employees refused rent checks from Black and Hispanic families and then accused them of nonpayment. They refused to do repairs and surprised these tenants with inspections, which opened them up for eviction for violating building rules.
By all accounts, the Sterlings appear to be horrible people. As despicable as their comments towards Black and Brown people are, it is the actions against those people that are the true offences. Some questions should be asked: “Why didn’t the NBA force him out when these actions first came to light?” “How was he able to maintain his status in the community?” “Why did the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP give this man a Lifetime Achievement Award and set up this year to give him another?” Hmmm…
This situation happened right after Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who is in a “tug o war” with the Bureau of Land Management gave his opinion on whether Black people were “better off during slavery” in regards to their family structure. Mr. Bundy, who had been placed as the poster boy for individual rights, was quickly excoriated by the same people who had supported him, once those comments saw the light of day. Bundy and Sterling may be card carrying racists, but words…as strong as they are, do not hold a candle to deeds, in regards to racism. America has apparently transformed racism into verbal offences without looking at the systematic issues that still hover over this country like a dark cloud.
As a (possibly jaded) Black man in his late 30’s, Bundy’s and Sterling’s comments are just stupid and run of the mill to me. It is Sterling’s actions as a property owner, that are much more divisive. It is the notion that some of the core tenets that Bundy ascribes to, are formed in early twentieth century White supremacist doctrine, that is more problematic than his “prescription” for “Negro” people. Institutionalized racism continues to be the most potent and effective “engine” of the social construct. Yet, people who know better have been convinced that the vestiges of centuries of sanctioned oppression have all but dissipated in the mythical “post-racial society.” The biggest example of this currently you ask? While we have been hanging on every inch of the Bundy and Sterling sagas, a group named Boko Haram kidnapped 234 girls from a dormitory at Chibok school in Nigeria on April 16th and this story has been largely absent from mainstream media outlets. Ask yourself this question, if 234 students had been kidnapped from a European school, would it have taken two weeks for you to hear about it? Systematic racism devalues certain members of the human race based on centuries of pattern-based thought. The very notion that this girls are missing should horrify us, yet they are barely given a first thought, let alone a second.
Adolf Hitler created the concept of "The Big Lie." It is a story so outrageous that nobody of ordinary decency can imagine somebody making it up. The Big Lie is then repeated, loudly, until it becomes something everybody ‘knows.’ “The Biggest Lie” currently in circulation is convincing the populace that institutionalized, systematic racism does not and has never existed. This lie is incredibly successful in spite of what your eyes and ears experience. Donald Sterling’s words mean less than nothing. The “engine” that has allowed him to maintain and prosper, in spite of his actions, means everything.
Ahmad Ward is Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI