What happens when you ignore racism? Does it go away and die of neglect, as though everyone would just “rise above it”? Or does it fester, like a bad-smelling disease, becoming increasingly more dangerous as it remains ignored?
The situation with the Los Angeles Clippers in the National Basketball Association is chock full of lessons for the movement. One of them is that racism in the hands of just one billionaire has far-reaching effects on people’s livelihoods.
Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling didn’t just get caught on tape spouting racism that showed his willingness to discriminate in the workplace. His admissions of “not wanting Black people at Clippers games” opened the sealed vault of complicity by the big business media, the NBA hierarchy and many nonprofits, which had closed their eyes to the fact that racist policies and hush money were denying housing to people of color in Los Angeles County.
But first let’s deal with a quick economics lesson that came out of Sterling’s audio tape, which was exposed to the world on April 25.
During the taped message, Sterling exposes his ignorance about where the value of wealth is created in professional sports. Basic Marxist economics proved almost 200 years ago that any item exchanged on the market for profit derives its value from human labor.
Yet Sterling implies in his racist rant that the NBA players’ value comes from 30 owners. Therefore the Clippers should be grateful that he graciously gives them cars, homes and more with the money he created. But has anyone ever seen his labor on the court making spectacular plays, doing the things people pay tickets for to be entertained?
If you consider that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made the decision to ban Sterling for life from the NBA and fine him $2.5 million, the maximum allowed by the NBA bylaws, only after hearing about a rumored boycott by all teams in the playoffs if he hadn’t imposed the ban, you begin to understand the potential of power that can only come from those who create value.
The Clippers, bought by Sterling for $12 million decades ago, is now worth over $700 million today. This has allowed Sterling to gain millions more than his original investment, which permits him to speculate in other money-making ventures also not requiring his labor.
Denying housing, buying off nonprofits
The New York Daily News recently reported that Sterling is the single largest owner of apartment buildings in Los Angeles County — a huge area covering 4,752 square miles. In 2009 Sterling had to finally stop denying housing to Black and Latino/a people due to a federal housing discrimination lawsuit that he paid near $5 million to settle including attorneys fees. That amount alone could not discourage his behavior, with his net worth of $1.9 billion according to the Los Angeles Times.
That slap on Sterling’s wrist must therefore be seen as an enabling wink by the federal courts.
Given that Sterling’s pockets weren’t touched by the wink, he was able to use his money, especially in the Black community of South Central Los Angeles, to fund any nonprofit organization willing to take his money and pose in advertisements or allow its name to be used to clean up his image.
Some said they did this unknowingly and demanded he cease and desist the advertisements. For instance, the current president of the youth-mentoring group 100 Black Men of Los Angeles, Pastor Jewett Walker Jr., was quoted in the May 3 Los Angeles Times as saying that Sterling’s ads used his groups to give the message: “Look at all the African Americans I’m helping.” Walker told the Times that his group returned the $5,000 Sterling had given it and demanded Sterling stop using its name.
Some, however, chose to continue the relationship. NAACP Los Angeles Chapter President Leon Jenkins resigned May 1 due to pressure from the national NAACP for his defense of Sterling. His resignation came when it was revealed that the chapter honored Sterling several times after accepting money from his foundation following the discrimination lawsuit.
In an opinion piece in USA Today, NAACP Board of Directors Chairperson Roslyn Brock stated: “Because of Sterling’s large donations to local charities, including the NAACP, they overlooked his worse than checkered history on race issues and gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2009 — and were about to honor him with a humanitarian award before his racist recording surfaced. The National NAACP and all of our affiliates must be more discerning in our awarding of honors, which should be for true achievements in advancing racial equality.” (April 30)
Although Sterling had plenty to be generous with since the federal lawsuit settlement didn’t even scratch the surface of his wealth, he only lightly salted various nonprofits servicing the Black community giving, according to the LA Times, $5,000 to $20,000 to dozens of groups, totalling only $1.4 million; yet he made claims of donations up to $20 million.
Disrepecting Black players
Former Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor, a Hall of Fame NBA player, sued Sterling for wrongful termination, accusing him of trying to create a “Southern plantation type structure.” (LA Times, April 26)
Baron Davis, a basketball analyst who once played for the Clippers, commented, “If we were in layup lines and he wasn’t around, I’d be in a great mood. … As soon as he walked into the arena, I’d get like the worst anxiety and I never had anxiety playing. … I couldn’t do it.” Davis went on to say that during games Sterling would heckle him, calling him a “bastard” and more. Davis said he couldn’t function, “[N]ot with this man sitting here. Knowing that he hates me.” (Bleacher Report, April 26)
This racist behavior toward Black athletes is magnified by the fact that 76 percent of NBA players are African American, giving the unfortunate term “owner” a potent link to slave terminology. The hesitation of Clipper players to even express their outrage after the tape was released, after probably holding outrage in for years, sheds light on the relationship of workers who are not even allowed to express their views outside the workplace without the risk of being cut from the team.
However, imagine if the Clippers took a page from the glorious history of Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass, all former slaves who fought back enduring unimaginative pain.
Imagine if the Clippers would have done what John Carlos and Tommie Smith courageously did to expose and show their defiance to racism during the 1968 Olympics by raising their fists in protest during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.
And imagine if the Clippers would not have “rose above it” in silence, but, as Muhammad Ali spoke truth to power and exposed the racist nature of the U.S. war against Vietnam, expressed outrage loud and proud for all to hear — inspiring every person of color and progressive white person into action. Now imagine this was done when Sterling’s racism first reared its ugly head many years ago.
Oh, and in case you’re feeling sorry for Sterling due to his health crisis, consider this: The New York Times reported that the Clippers’ former assistant coach, Kim Hughes, had contacted Sterling for help when he needed surgery costing $70,000 to fight prostate cancer, which wasn’t covered under Sterling’s health plan. Hughes was only able to get the surgery thanks to contributions from four players.
So don’t feel too sorry. Be more concerned about all the damage done to his employees and communities on and off the court. Then help organize to make sure Sterling “owns” nothing more, starting with the Clippers.
Both Sekou Parker and John Parker attended the protest against Donald Sterling at the Staples Center on April 29. To see coverage of the protest, go to workers.org.