By Professor Christie Matthews
Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling’s, recent racist comments have ignited public outcry– and rightly so. The private conversation, recorded by his black and Latina girlfriend, revealed a man with bigotry so deep yet so conflicted that he seemingly demands that his girlfriend “whitewash” her ethnic heritage and disassociate herself publicly from blacks and other minorities. Sterling allegedly says his girlfriend can meet with blacks and sleep with blacks but not take pictures with them or bring them to Clippers games. When she protests, he allegedly calls his girlfriend naïve and “stupid” as to the ways of the world when it comes to race, even as she responds that she can’t help it if she cannot be racist in her heart.
Now most fair-minded and good-hearted people can see Sterling’s viewpoints for what they are—offensive, ugly, detestable—particularly so because he is an owner in a league comprised of over 80% minorities, minorities who help fatten his bank accounts.
But do we recognize the exchange between Sterling and his girlfriend for what it really represents? Is this conversation not simply a microcosm of the much more mammoth issue of race relations in America? On the one hand, there are those with good intentions that eschew bigotry and hatred, and as such are more reluctant to recognize that racism is alive and kicking in 2014. On the other hand, there are still those, many in positions of power, who embody a Plessy v. Ferguson mentality—the 1896 case in which the Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” was Constitutional and in doing so confirmed that there is a property right to whiteness. Is it that Sterling’s comments are reflective of this ugly truth– being white has value still today—better job opportunity, higher pay, less police intrusion, greater perceived intelligence and competency?
Most of us prefer to view Sterling’s viewpoints as atypical, aberrant, the juice from a bad apple. Yet studies show that nearly everyone has racial bias, even if subconsciously, and that racial bias plays out in many spaces—on the job, in the courtroom, and in the political arena, to name a few. Is it that Sterling is simply tapping into what most of us would see if we dared lift the veil of post-racial propaganda and eschewed the color-blind approach evidenced in such court decisions like Shelby County v. Holder, which eliminated pre-clearance requirements for election law changes? Is it that Sterling is simply reflecting the harsh reality—race, and racial associations, do still matter, and that those in power are not blind to its effects on their reputations and, in turn, their pockets?
Of course, I am not saying that there is any excuse whatsoever for Sterling’s comments. He has rightly been subject to swift and harsh discipline by the league—a lifetime ban and a $2.5 million fine. But I am saying that the real injustice will be for us to write him off as pathological and allow ourselves to be lulled into believing that these types of racists comments don’t continue to take place across America. Racist views are prevalent, deep-seated and complex. Perhaps the Sterling controversy can best be used as a catalyst for examining our own internal biases in order to realize racial progress.