OK. I'm going to tell you what I think about Donald Sterling. Just like everyone else on the Internet.
In case you live under a rock, here is a VERY brief summary of what's been all over the news for the past two days, concerning Donald Sterling, the former-slumlord owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Donald Sterling had this long phone conversation with his girlfriend that served as the most disturbingly racist display imaginable in modern America -- which everyone knows now, because she taped it and sold it to TMZ. He said a lot of fun things, including a comment about how he benevolently clothes and provides food for many blacks [ahem, basketball players], and something completely bizarre about Israel. But the comment that most people return to is one about an Instagram picture of Magic Johnson. He says to his girlfriend, indignantly, "Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo, broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
This is all gross and awful, and everyone on earth agrees about it. Sure, there are like ten people in the world who don't think Donald Sterling is the worst human being alive, and it's very depressing to think about the kind of power that comes with money. For the most part, though, no one anywhere is defending this guy. Except Donald Trump on Fox News, I guess. To no one's surprise.
The NBA responded today by banning Sterling for life, and charging him $2.5 million in damages -- the maximum allowed by the league's constitution. Cool. Great. Justice has been served.
The problem I have with all of this has nothing to do with Donald Sterling. It has to do with the On Point discussion that I heard on NPR yesterday following the Donald Sterling comments. The host, Tom Ashbrook, returned from every commercial break with an introduction to the show that cited Sterling's comments, alongside other (crazy) comments from ranch owner Clide Bundy, alongside the fact that our president is black. Then he asked, "In terms of race and racism in America, where do we stand now?"
Good question. Unfortunately, none of the examples Ashbrook mentioned in his many introductions really have all that much to do with race and racism as it is lived in America today.
The problem with Donald Sterling (aside from everything about him) is that we allow him to define racism for us. Just as we can say, "Well, I voted for Obama, so I do not participate in racism in the United States," we can also say, "I think Donald Sterling is a bigot, and he deserves to be punished for his remarks," and then reward ourselves for our liberal, inclusive belief systems.
On Sunday, I went to a New Teachers' Roundtable discussion about white supremacy culture. At the beginning of the meeting, the moderators passed around a chapter from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. It's a long chapter, but it's terrific and illuminating. Here's the introduction:
This is a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture which show up in our organizations. Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics listed below are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.
The list includes: sense of urgency, perfectionism, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, paternalism, either/ or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, progress is bigger or more, individualism, objectivity, and right to comfort. In list form, I recognize that those are just words, and they may not mean much to you. (Though if you're curious, you can read the extended list here.) But trust me, if you participate in any successful American organization, you place value in at least a few of these, and you probably don't think twice about how they are white supremacist ideals.
Our country is set up to keep oppressed minorities oppressed. Every time we participate in that, we are exercising our privilege, and it's a very important part of institutionalized racism.
When we give our undivided attention to Donald Sterling (not literally, but metaphorically -- and also, I guess, literally), we are allowing racism to be easy. Racism is not easy. That's why we like stories like this one -- they make us feel comfortable in our own goodness. That's a white supremacist characteristic too, by the way (the right to comfort).
There was a girl who called into On Point and said that her grandfather was a bigot. She said that bigots and racists were relics, and that we just have to let them die off before we live in a truly color-blind world.
Meanwhile, I work at a school where 90 percent of the teachers are white and 100 percent of the students are black. The teachers tell the students to walk in silent straight lines and eat silent lunches and to obey all the rules, or they will be punished. Meanwhile, a few blocks from my house, Jazzfest is going on. The enormous music celebration lauds a historically liberatory African American musical tradition, but boasts tickets so expensive that most of the musicians can't afford to get their own families in. As a result, the festival is attended almost exclusively by white people -- because when things divide along class lines, they also divide along race lines in America. No one is pretending like that is an accident.
But there's no mainstream media explosion about the inherent racism in charter schools, or the problem with Jazzfest. Those are fringe stories, always, but they're not comfortable. We like the Donald Sterling story better, because we can sit back and watch it burn, without seeing our own visages in the flame.