Don Sterling, White Guilt, and a Conversation That Never Happened
Don Sterling became the latest in a long list of individuals who haven been outed for having race views and not even the subtle racism that is often times in code and institutionalized, but the loud and boisterous stereotypical racism we associate with groups like the Klu Klux Klan. His comments are from an elite white male and just when the media wants to hail our modern America as post-racial here comes Don Sterling telling his girl friend to not so obviously associate with black people because it means criticism from a mysterious ‘they’. And inevitably some white folks are saying to themselves, “Ugh! More fuel for the fire. Man why can’t we just get rid of these racist geezers once and for all. Then black people can’t say racism is real and whites are privileged, and I can stop feeling sooo uncomfortable when the topic of race comes up. I can be assured in my position of equal righteousness for all and that we are all living the dream. And if you’re not then the fault lies with you and ‘your people’, not us.”
But this perspective can also fuel guilt because while they may have not had direct dealings with the guy or even been a contributor to the culture he grew up in, but they recognize that they are part of the monolith known as ‘white people’ in this country and that means guilt by association, however indirect that association might be. But guilt is not a useful or appropriate fuel for disengaging in continuously destructive behavior. What makes a person or group of persons change their behavior is a sincere desire to develop and grow and become better than they were, but you have to acknowledge change is needed. This is a national conversation that isn’t happening. Policy makers can not even agree on whether something, anything concerning the nature of race needs to be changed. If we can not agree on the root causes of profound and even subtle racism then more Don Sterling’s will inevitably occur. However Don Sterling and his racism has been very front and center, so someone had to act and that someone was the NBA. For what it’s worth I applaud the NBA for their very strong response, but I can not be too satisfied about what resulted from Sterling’s comments. He will probably be forced to sell and make millions in the process, while serving no jail time for widely known housing discrimination him and his wife engaged in.
But the NBA’s strong response was also directly related to the number of African American players in the league and that a boycott or even smaller social and cultural disturbances could occur that would upset the cash pipe line the NBA has in place. To say that a fine, a life time ban, and forced sale of the team are largely symbolic with no real weight might be a bit pessimistic, but in the larger scope of things, that’s exactly what the truth of the matter of is. We marched in the streets for Trayvon Martin, passed posts on social media about the woman in Florida being tried for firing a warning shot when ‘stand your ground’ is still on the books, and we rioted for the Rodney King verdict; but no real sustained civil rights movement as it relates to African Americans has taken place in recent years.
And no real conversation, mass meeting, town hall, or convention that engages the nation in a conversation on race has happened either. Town halls are not just for election years and we would do well to start community meetings all over the country, flush with diversity from race to socioeconomic to gender status in an attempt to discuss the roots of why people like Don Sterling exist. Because to be clear he’s old, he was raised during a time when racism was simply the thing to do. But he has had countless employees from his real estate business to his NBA team work for him and in all that time, despite many articles and pieces on it in sports news, few individuals ever made public statements regarding how Sterling ran his businesses or tried to create changes to his business practices. One would assume that while most people wanted to keep a job and not rock the boat, others probably thought nothing of his actions and directives and not all of these people are in their eighties. There are people who think like Don sterling, they are among us, and they are not all elderly. The roots of what creates these perspectives needs to be discussed, heavily.
But the issue is that few of us are interested in direct confrontation. These conversations would cause blacks, latinos and other ethnic minority groups to question their perspectives, the way they judge themselves and other people besides the expectation that this would also occur for white Americans. This type of confrontational, personal, and group self reflection is about as emotionally comfortable as electric shock therapy. And it would be good to acknowledge that this is a hard topic. Issues of rights, grievances, social structures that perpetuate inequality, even questioning the very foundation of what exactly it means to be racist are all up for grabs and very little consensus exists on any of these sub categories when attacking the monolith that is race in this country. This national conversation will not even become meaningful until we can agree on certain parameters and right now, we’re not even having that discussion, let alone the larger discussion of how do we rid ourselves of racism and what sustained initiatives need to take place in order to accomplish that. Like other social commentators what I am asking for from all of us is beyond a tall order. As humans we are keen to avoid discomfort whenever possible, but if we do not learn to endure the discomfort for the light at the end of tunnel then the marches, boycotts, sit ins, and aggressive legislation of the past will stay exactly that, in the past. Past civil rights movements are not and have not been in vain, but they will become so if sustained action in the way of honest discussion and communication never gets off the ground.
And in relation to the picture above: Many of know this is truth, the system doesn’t want the conversation, because the ensuing discomfort and changing of the guard would be quite literally painful. How many of us ever walk into something knowing its going to be incredibly, not mild, but incredibly painful and do it anyway? With the exception of tattoos/piercings, dental work, pregnancy/child birth, and surgery I don’t see many other examples. Keep this in mind when we ask people to change 🙂