Charles M. Blow
Don Sterling’s racist rant, on a recording published by TMZ, has earned him a lifetime ban by the N.B.A. and cost him a second — second? — lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. The N.A.A.C.P.?!
Reaction to the recording was swift, as reactions can be to unambiguous horrors, but questions still linger: Why had the N.B.A. not acted before on Sterling’s well-known racist behavior? What on earth was the Los Angeles N.A.A.C.P. thinking in extending a lifetime achievement award to this man? Will Sterling be forced to sell his team or will he find some way to maintain control of it? Why does the emotional reaction to interpersonal racism drown out the muted response to institutional racism, which actually does more damage?
We will be wrestling with these questions and their answers in the coming weeks and months, but in the meantime it is appropriate, and informative, to look more closely at the recordings that touched off this scandal. It offers a rare and vivid exposition of the historical themes and loopy logic of the racist mind: possessed of derangement, detached from reason, bereft of morality.
Sterling is upset with his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, for “taking pictures with minorities,” particularly Magic Johnson, and posting them on Instagram. As Sterling puts it: “And don’t bring him to my games. Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo, broadcast, that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” He demands that she not bring any black people to his basketball games, which is in itself laugh-out-loud ironic.
And yet, on the recordings, he keeps trying to convince Stiviano, and possibly himself, that he is a nonracist racist, saying things like, “there’s nothing wrong with minorities. They’re fabulous. Fabulous, ” and “I love black people.” But possibly the most revealing portion is when he says of his own black players:
“I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have — who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?”
It drains them of their merit and talent and masks his intolerance behind a badge of benevolence, an old plantation ploy meant to justify the unjustifiable.
At another point, Sterling tries to justify his views by diminishing his own, independent role in them, and attributing his beliefs to his environment, saying, “There’s a culture.”
He continues, “I’m living in a culture, and I have to live within the culture.” This phrase calls Sterling’s entire social circle into question. Does the culture that he finds himself immersed in either explicitly or tacitly approve of — or rather, reinforce — his views? Sterling is the man on the recording, but how many more of the people within his “culture,” far from earshot, nod to such vitriol?
And just when you thought things couldn’t get more disturbing or complicated, they do. Stiviano’s seeming acquiescence to Sterling’s insane ranting, even if possibly contrived for the recording, is beyond disturbing.
At one point she says, “Honey, if it makes you happy, I will remove all of the black people from my Instagram.” Stiviano continues by explaining that she didn’t remove Matt Kemp and Magic Johnson, and that she didn’t remove Kemp because, as she put it: “I thought Matt Kemp is mixed, and he was O.K., just like me. He’s lighter and whiter than me.”
This is antebellum-level coloristic thinking at its most refined and pronounced: that greatest proximity, by proxy of pigmentation, to whiteness, the more “O.K.” or acceptable one becomes. It is sickening.
This theme is repeated on the tapes when Stiviano asks, “Do you know that I’m mixed?” Sterling responds, “No, I don’t know that.” She insists, “You know that I’m mixed.” Later he tells her, “You’re supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl.”
The word “delicate” there hangs in the air like the smell of rotting flesh, because by omission and comparatively, it suggests that black women, or women who associate with black men, are somehow divested of their delicateness, which in this case, and the recess of this distorted mind, sounds a lot like a term of art for femininity, and by extension womanhood. This is a disturbing peek at the intersection of racism, misogyny and privilege. “I wish I could change the color of my skin,” Stiviano says. Sterling responds, “That’s not the issue.” He continues, “The issue is we don’t have to broadcast everything.”
It also evokes the archaic idea that some racists could countenance, in public and in intimacy, the company of light-skinned people who could “pass” so long as their secret was kept.
This is all a revolting descent into the heart of racial darkness.
At one point on the recording Sterling says to Stiviano, “You think I’m a racist,” and that she believes he has an “evil heart.”
She protests, “No I don’t.” She continues, “I think you have an amazing heart.”
And so goes the coddling of the racist.