You know it’s been a historic week in racism when the number two story involves a guy who started off his rant with the phrase “and let me tell you another thing I know about the Negro.”
That Donald Sterling, the soon-to-be former owner of the L.A. Clippers could somehow eclipse serial criminal, Fox News folk hero and clueless racist Cliven Bundy says something about how deep the spirit of racism remains entrenched at least in some of this country’s population.
And despite near unanimous (I’d say unanimous but the far right never completely disappoints) condemnation of both Bundy’s and Sterling’s words, the backlash with respect to the punishment has begun.
No one, especially politicians and hatemongers like Sean Hannity, have resurrected Bundy’s criminal enterprise to further their war on the country’s first black president. I suspect no one of import will get back into bed with him. But when it comes to unrepentant cheater and racist Sterling, we’ve now entered the backlash phase.
On Tuesday, a mere three days after Sterling’s private conversations blanketed the airwaves, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver came down hard. He banned Sterling from the NBA for life and said he’d work to force a sale of his team. For good measure, he fined Sterling $2.5 million on his way out the door.
The severity of the punishment has seemed to oddly work in Sterling’s favor, at least for a few contrarians and, surprisingly, not all of them camping out on the far right fringe of polite society.
To this point, the alternate perspective has fallen generally into one of two categories: privacy and freedom. The sound had barely left the auditorium where Silver announced the penalties when questions began to arise about not just the severity of the penalties but what the incident itself says about us as a country.
Jason Whitlock, writing for ESPN, took a thoughtful if nonsensical contrarian approach. While not defending Sterling’s words, he did raise questions about punishing someone, including a racist like Sterling, for private thoughts uttered behind closed doors to his mistress. Fair enough even though those supposedly private words were heard by so many so often in the last week that more people can quote them than the first amendment to the Constitution.
He then raised questions about the apparent mob rule that seemed to mandate Silver’s decision, noting the dangerousness of merely responding to throngs that tend to act more on emotion than intelligence. Again, fair enough even if he didn’t acknowledge that sometimes the mob gets things right. But where Whitlock stopped making sense was when he advanced a theory backed by nothing empirical let alone thoughtful that Sterling’s penalty did nothing to solve the greater issue of the culture that informed Sterling’s world view in the first place, not to mention the greater issue of advancing the cause of blacks generally.
Whitlock is wrong. The punishment that Silver administered strikes exactly at the core of the culture that created a racist like Sterling in the first place. Sterling lives in a bubble of his own making. A line was crossed, probably decades ago, by Sterling when he came to believe that his business success gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted and without consequence. And Sterling certainly lived out that life. He cheated on his wife openly. He discriminated against potential minority tenants in his housing projects, again openly. Indeed Sterling conducted his life so outside of what most would consider normal that his life to most appeared to be a caricature.
The problem is, the standards by which he’s being judged are the thoughts of most of us because most of us don’t live in that bubble. In Sterling’s bubble, he was just fine, the life of the party really. Sterling’s past actions, fed by an almost complete lack of attaching consequences, fed, as Whitlock suggests, an insidious culture. But where Whitlock is wrong is that heavy handed punishments often can and often do shake the status quo of those cultures in fundamental ways. I still recall a debate from my college days about the seminal Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in which the concept of separate but equal was struck down. The professor asked whether a simple Supreme Court decision would have any real impact. As students we questioned the value of the rule of law in fostering significant cultural change with opinions varied on its effectiveness.
History has more than demonstrated that impact of that simple Supreme Court decision. It created a sea change in the rights of blacks, changes that many whites are still fighting to this day. Nonetheless what it did most was change our views, made most of us see the folly and ridiculousness of treating people differently simple because of the color of their skin.
Here, the power of Silver’s penalties can have a similar effect. While blatant racism isn’t the problem it was in 1954, it’s still wildly prevalent no matter what the Wall Street Journal editorial board may think or how often the overwhelmingly predominately white far right claim it’s not. On the same day Silver punished Sterling, a Wisconsin federal court struck down a voter identification law in Wisconsin put in place by a far right governor and legislature because while not fixing a problem that doesn’t exist in the first place (voter fraud) the law had a very detrimental effect on the minorities and the poor whose votes they were intentionally trying to suppress. It was the second court to strike down the law.
The point is that racism may not be as open as it was in the 1950s when blacks had to use separate water fountains, but it exists and in very serious forms still. The Sterling punishment is a very loud shot across the bow of the white establishment that it is no longer business as usual. If the lesson learned is that not even private conversations are safe, then so be it. Sterling’s private racism demonstrated him to be a public phony and ultimately a public racist.
When an essentially private club like the NBA, dependent on the public for its very existence, takes action in that public interest, whether informed by emotion, intelligence or both, it does have an effect. It sends a message to owners in every sport, in every corporation, that their words have consequences and will be punished. Those in power do have a greater responsibility and as they clean up their act, whether forced by the severe consequences given to Sterling or simply because it’s the right thing to do, society as a whole is better off, more advanced.
Which leads to my second point, the presence of that free market that the right and the extreme right in particular seem to believe cures all ills. It certainly did in this case and yet it’s those same advocates that are now having the most trouble with what happened to Sterling.
While Whitlock was being thoughtful, others not so much. On the local front, the media’s biggest troll and lightest intellectual, Mike Trivisonno, used his platform at an increasingly irrelevant AM radio station that serves as the flagship sports station in town to rail on about how Sterling’s punishment is still another example of how our freedoms in this country are under attack.
The problem with jackasses like Trivisonno is not just their inability to process higher order concepts but also their rather simplistic view that freedom is threatened every time responsibility attaches.
Trivisonno decried, simply decried, the influence that various sponsors of the L.A. Clippers had on the punishment handed out to Sterling. Sponsors pulled their dollars from the Clippers, sending a message to the NBA at the same time that similar actions could follow if Silver didn’t take sever action. And it certainly it fair to suggest Silver’s actions were highly informed by the economic impact that could befall the league if he didn’t punish Sterling severely. But so what? Isn’t that just the free market at work?
Trivisonno was likely speaking from a more personal standpoint on this issue anyway. As a media provocateur, to be polite, or as an ill-informed nitwit, to be more accurate, Trivisonno’s opinions have likely drawn the ire of his show’s sponsors and that seems to chafe in ways that probably clipped off the even more strident views he’d prefer to express. Again, though, that’s just the free market at work.
No one holds a gun to the heads of any sponsor to advertise and no one holds a gun to the heads of any team or league to accept that advertisement. The sponsors who pulled their advertising with the Clippers were maybe slightly motivated by moral concerns but were overwhelmingly motivated by economic ones. They simply didn’t want anyone to associate their product or service with an avowed racist like Sterling. It’s really the same thing that happened when Tiger Woods lost all his sponsors when the revelations about his sordid personal life became public. Most companies not named Nike are concerned about the impact to their bottom line when people thing negatively about their product.
About 76% of the players in the NBA are black. The NBA courts and counts a large black fan base. Being sensitive to their concerns just makes economic sense to the sponsors who back the league.
Sterling’s freedom wasn’t at all impacted by the punishment Silver laid out any more than it was impacted by the multimillion dollar settlement he paid to resolve discrimination claims years ago. He can and probably still will have the occasional private rant about the blacks he either cannot stand or understand. What is impacted is his ability to conduct business inside the private confines of the NBA with people that don’t relate well to his thinking. That is just the free market talking loudly and proudly.
Freedom isn’t a catchword for irresponsibility. Simply because you can say it doesn’t mean you should. Words and actions do have consequences. Sometimes they get you into legal trouble. Sometimes they get you in business trouble. Sometimes they get you punched in the nose. And in none of those situations is our freedom at all impacted.
Much of the criticism of Silver that falls into the bucket represented by Trivisonno is really a criticism of what they believe to be political correctness gone amok. Denouncing racism is just correct. There’s nothing political about it.
The real movement we have in this country is being initiated by the Freedom Police, a weird band of off- thinking wingnuts who seem to think that any infringement on their ability to do what they want when they want and to whomever they want is tantamount to the oppression the colonists felt at the hands of the British.
As the fictitious president Andrew Shepard said in The American President, America is advanced citizenship. We’re a country built not just on freedom as an amorphous concept but responsible freedom exercised by people with a sense larger than themselves. We can and should put limits on absolute freedom because your right to do whatever you want exactly ends at the point on which it infringes on my right to be left alone. There’s a reason shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is punishable and not an infringement on freedom. There’s a reason that libel and slander are actionable.
Sterling may have been exercising his freedom of thought but the moment it impacted on his fellow owners and their ability to conduct their business, the moment it impacted on the league’s black players and their ability to work in a discrimination free environment, that ability to act irresponsibly and without consequence ended. That’s as it should be and as it’s always been.
So please spare me the sanctimony of the contrarians like Whitlock who believe private words and thoughts shouldn’t matter. Spare me too the ill-conceived logic of jerks like Trivisonno who only imagine a life lived without consequence, as if that’s ever existed. Sterling got what the populace and the market dictated. He got what he deserved, finally.