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The Owner and the Owned: A Grantland Discussion About Donald Sterling

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This was the most memorable discussion for me coming out of the Donald Sterling racism scandal:

Rembert Browne: So Donald Sterling sees himself as a kind and merciful plantation owner. Well then.

Wesley, there’s so much to discuss: Sterling’s history of racism; his ability to be completely nondiscriminatory with regard to bigotry; the racist, guilt-trip filled, “world’s worst boyfriend” exchange between him and his then-girlfriend; the response from the basketball community; and talks of boycotts and protests and lost sponsorships, to name just a few. And most have been discussed. And discussed well.

One of the things I’m interested in is why this situation hit home. Or did it not? I know for me, sometimes overt racism doesn’t register as much, because it’s easy to disregard the crazies (Cliven Bundy, Westboro Baptist Church, Internet trolls who wake up just to call you “nigger,” etc.). But this still got to me. Intensely. Interested in your thoughts. Let’s start there and see where it goes.

Wesley Morris: Rembert.

Racism is like TV right now. There’s too much to follow. Where does anybody start with this? Only now, for instance, am I halfway through Season 1 of Game of Thrones. It’s a similar thing with Donald Sterling. I’d heard stuff here and there but had never experienced all of it. So, courtesy of Deadspin, some writers’ sites, and cable news, I binge-watched, more or less, decades of this guy. I’ve just removed my hazmat suit and am ready to type. First: Where do you start?

It might seem obvious and therefore not worth addressing — Rembert, you mentioned “plantation” in your first sentence — but the history that Sterling has been so casually invoking is worth thinking about, and that’s the matter of ownership. To be clear, Donald Sterling is a white man who owns a team in the NBA, a league that was 76.3 percent black as of 2013. He bought the Clippers in the early 1980s, during the sad San Diego years. He began his career as a divorce and personal-injury lawyer. He then moved into California real estate development (towers and that sort of thing), and in 2006 was sued by the Justice Department, which alleged housing discrimination. The suit claims he didn’t want to rent to blacks in Beverly Hills and to non-Koreans in Koreatown. A 2009 Bill Plaschke column in the Los Angeles Times about former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor’s anti-discrimination lawsuit against Sterling also quoted from the Justice Department suit, citing an instance when Sterling said he didn’t want to rent to black people because they “smell and attract vermin.” That story preceded a jaw-dropping Peter Keating investigative profile of Sterling that contained, among much else, the observation that he doesn’t like “Mexican men because they smoke, drink and just hang around the house.”

Ownership is important to Sterling. So are appearances. As an adult he changed his surname from Tokowitz to Sterling, which is quite a choice. It trumps “Donald Trump.” He doesn’t own as much as The Donald, but he might be a more dedicated racist. In any case, ownership matters because it brings us back to the plantation, the second primal scene of racial conflict in this country (the first, of course, being the American plains). I’ve always found it impossible to ignore the reality that American sports — and especially the NBA — have almost always been about white men owning and trading mostly black men. Civility, progress, and lots of money introduced a lubricant for decorum. We don’t have to talk about how much the NBA is like the old South because, in theory, this is black athletes signing up for and being paid well to work for white people. Very superficially, it’s all on the up-and-up. Yet you’re never not aware of who’s in charge. The David Stern era, with its union squabbles and enforced dress code, made me feel owned.

What these Sterling disclosures do is present a positive biopsy. If you’ve always suspected racism exists at the top of some teams here and abroad, well, here are some fresh results. It’s so funny listening to a particular type of old white man talk about how his days are numbered. Every time a moment like this happens, you see how the old power dynamic never changes even when the plantation owner is paying you many millions of dollars. Between certain politicians, certain broadcasters, and that Cliven Bundy, these old white guys — to the extent that they’re going out at all — are going out with a bang.

Rembert, what fascinates me is where this leaves anybody who works for Donald Sterling. This isn’t like finding out your non-black best friend is a racist. It’s worse. You can quit your best friend. It’s harder to quit working. But when your boss is on the record as not wanting his mistress to be seen with you because of your race, what do you do? It’s someone telling you that you’re less than human. No amount of money could mollify the insult. I mean, how many cheeks do you turn until you run out of cheeks?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver did the right thing in banning Donald Sterling for life.

"Racism is like TV right now.  There's too much to follow."   Sadly true.

Silver is encouraging the NBA to force a sale.

I find it fascinating to see just how many rich people want to buy:

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