By now you’ve no doubt heard about the recordings of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (allegedly) saying some pretty disgustingly racist things. In his latest vlog, Jay Smooth raises an important question about the aftermath: “Why do racist words bring more accountability than racist practices?”
I believe the answer to that question is that Donald Sterling broke the rules of politeness when it comes to American racism. The lesson that this country has gleaned from centuries of freedom fighting and resistance and pushback to slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, economic exploitation, rape, theft and cultural/historical erasure is that you shouldn’t say mean things about black people. So long as you don’t say mean things, everything else is fine. Everything else, in fact, is necessary, in order that the United States remains a place where white supremacy thrives.
In the recording, Sterling tells his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, that he doesn’t want her to be seen at Clippers game (the word he uses is “my” games, as if he plays in the games himself) with black people. With that, he crosses the line with which Americans are comfortable. You shouldn’t judge anyone by the color of their skin, we’re all the same, etc. etc. His impolite racism breaks the rules of decorum. But it also sets the incredibly low bar by which Americans can judge themselves and their own adherence to racism. Now, if you’ve ever sat next to a black person at a basketball game, your antiracist cred is solid, because those are the terms on which we’re holding the discussion around racism. Are you polite enough to share a social event with a black person? Congratulations, you’re not a racist. As long as you’re not Cliven Bundy, or Paula Dean, or Bill O’Reilly, you’re not a racist. Sterling’s (alleged) comments absolve the system and everyone else complicit therein.
Luckily, or as lucky as these things get, this incident has shed light on Sterling’s more insidious racist practices, like the housing discrimination suit he had to settle in 2009. But the tapes offer more insight into the structure of American racism and the way it justifies itself. From the transcript provided by Deadspin:
Stiviano: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?
Sterling: You just, do I know? 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?… Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?
Sterling (allegedly) doesn’t see the Clippers players as employees. He (allegedly) hardly sees them as human beings. He (allegedly) thinks he, because of his money, makes the game possible, not the hard work and talent of the people who go out there and play. They’re no more than the recipients of Sterling’s beneficent philanthropy.
It’s the insufferable marriage between racism and capitalism that allows both systems to continuing functioning and oppressing. According to the recording, Sterling, a wealthy white man, sees no issue with profiting from the labor of “his” black players, because he provides for them the basics of survival. The premium is placed on ownership. Granted, because these are men making millions of dollars it’s hard to see how this relates to trials of the average worker. But as it is at the top of the income scale, so it is at the bottom, where labor is extracted from people and they are expected to be grateful for whatever they receive, even if it’s not enough to provide for themselves. For people of color, that work is devalued even further and the level of gratitude expected even higher. And pretty much everyone is OK with that.
At one point on the tape, Sterling (allegedly) says to Stiviano, about black people, “I want you to love them—privately.” “Love” us privately, exploit us publicly. Just another day in America.
Read Next: Donald Sterling’s willing enablers.