The Donald Sterling controversy has now become an international story, a bizarre convergence of old-fashioned, antebellum-style racism coupled with reality-television soap opera and a dose of the politics of economic boycott.
At the moment, the NBA is investigating racist remarks attributed to Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, that advise Sterling's then-girlfriend to refrain from being seen in public with Black people.
Sterling has maintained that he harbors none of the racist views that were revealed in the recording, which were released on the website TMZ. But so far, no one, including the Clippers owner himself, has denied that it was indeed his voice spewing all manor of racist talk. The revelations are said to be the handiwork of Sterling’s apparently belittled girlffriend, who seems to have taken the concept of a woman scorned to a fascinatingly high-stakes level.
Sterling seems a highly odd man, admonishing his half-Black female friend for associating with too many African-Americans, including deriding her for having her photo taken with Magic Johnson.
“You can sleep with [Black people]. You can bring them in,” he is reported to have said to his friend. “You can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it … and not to bring them to my games.”
He speaks of his Black players with the condenscenion of a slave owner, like someone reading lines in Django. They should be pleased, he said of the Black members of the Clippers, that he provides income, food and clothing for them. He doesn't seem to realize that he would have no income from the franchise were it not for his players. It's very much in line with the mindset of the plantation owner of the 1840s.
For anyone who has paid even scant attention to the history of Sterling, these comments are not exactly something that would seem profoundly out of character. He has been the subject of a number of discrimination suits.
In one case in 2006, the Justice Department filed a suit against Sterling’s rental company, charging it with refusing to lease apartments in Beverly Hills to African-Americans and turning down prospective renters with children from some of its Los Angeles properties. Sterling denied the accusations but settled the case in 2009 by agreeing to pay nearly $3 million.
Another incident came from Elgin Baylor, the Clippers former general manager, who sued Sterling in 2009 for wrongful termination and discrimination on the basis of race and age. A jury ruled in favor of Sterling, but not before Baylor accused the owner of operating with a “plantation” mentality.
For the moment, the nation is waiting to see what the NBA will do to deal with this situation. Of course, the best outcome would be to see Sterling moved out of the family of team owners. Just as Marge Schott was pushed out of her ownership role with the Cincinnati Reds in the mid-1990s for anti-Semitic comments, that same fate should be appropriate for Sterling.
In the meantime, the players themselves are in a difficult position. They are contracted to play whatever might be left of their playoff dreams while wanting to make a bold statement of condemnation against the team owner.
The most fitting way of dealing with this sordid matter is the one championed by the Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network: The economic boycott. There cannot be any self-respecting company or advertiser who would want to be associated with Sterling at the moment. And it makes sense to capitalize on that by urging companies to sever their ties with the Clippers (several have already pulled their sponsorships). And, for that matter, the NBA, should they continue to dawdle in determining how to handle the matter (it never seems to take this long for them to sanction a player for some breach of proper behavior).
Just as was the case with the Montgomery Bus Boycott nearly 60 years ago, the only language that will make the point that racism is unpalatable in any form is usually economic.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan
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(Photo: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)